Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

September 6, 2005

Sneaking to the Rescue

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:45 pm

Ray Gronberg of the Durham, NC Herald-Sun reports:

DURHAM — A trio of Duke University sophomores say they drove to New Orleans late last week, posed as journalists to slip inside the hurricane-soaked city twice, and evacuated seven people who weren’t receiving help from authorities.

The group, led by South Carolina native Sonny Byrd, say they also managed to drive all the way to the New Orleans Convention Center, where they encountered scenes early Saturday evening that they say were disgraceful.

“We found it absolutely incredible that the authorities had no way to get there for four or five days, that they didn’t go in and help these people, and we made it in a two-wheel-drive Hyundai,” said Hans Buder, who made the trip with his roommate Byrd and another student, David Hankla.

Small correction: By the time they got there, “the authorities” no longer “had no way to get there” — and in fact below they describe seeing numerous police National Guard troops in the city.

Buder’s account — told by cell phone Sunday evening as the trio neared Montgomery, Ala., on their way home — chronicled a three-day odyssey that began when the students, angered by the news reports they were seeing on CNN, loaded up their car with bottled water and headed for the Gulf coast to see if they could lend a hand.

The trio say they left Durham about 6 p.m. Thursday and reached Montgomery about 12 hours later. After catching 1½ hours of sleep, they reached the coast at Mobile. From there, they traveled through the Mississippi cities of Biloxi and Gulfport.

They say they elected to keep going because it seemed like Mississippi authorities had things well in hand.

Now if — as lots of people including the New Orleans mayor seem to be saying — this is all the federal government’s fault, FEMA’s fault, and Bush’s fault, why it is that things are under control in Mississippi? Does Mississippi have a different president and a different federal government? Or could it be — just maybe — that the state and local governments in Mississippi are more competent and less corrupt, and the difference between the situation there and in Louisiana is due — at least in part — to the incompetence and/or corruption of the state and local governments in Louisiana?

Moving right along, we get to my favorite part:

Pushing on, they passed through Slidell, La., and tried to get into New Orleans by a couple of routes. Each time, police and National Guard troops turned them away. By 2 p.m. they’d wound up in Baton Rouge.

At 2 p.m., the trio decided to head for New Orleans, Buder said. After looking around, they swiped an Associated Press identification and one of the TV station’s crew shirts, and found a Kinko’s where they could make copies of the ID.

They were stopped again by authorities at the edge of New Orleans, but this time were able to make it through.

“We waved the press pass, and they looked at each other, the two guards, and waved us on in,” Buder said.

I think next time I want to get into some place I’m not supposed to be able to get into, I’ll just head for the nearest Kinko’s and make myself a press pass.

Now why is it that the press is let in, but residents — who may want to “report” on the status of their homes, for example — are not? Who deserves to be there more?

Inside the city, they found a surreal environment.

“It was wild,” Buder said. “It really felt like it was ‘Independence Day,’ the movie.”

The trio dodged downed trees and power lines until they happened upon Magazine Street, which runs in a semi-circle around the city parallel to and about four blocks north of the Mississippi River.

They stopped to give water to a 15-year-old boy sitting beside the road holding a sign that said “Need Water/Food,” then went to the convention center.

The evacuation was basically complete by the time they arrived, at about 6:30 or 6:45 p.m. What the trio saw there horrified them.

“The only way I can describe this, it was the epicenter,” Buder said. “Inside there were National Guard running around, there was feces, people had urinated, soiled the carpet. There were dead bodies. The smell will never leave me.”

Buder said the students saw four or five bodies. National Guard troopers seemed to be checking the second and third floors of the building to try to secure the site.

“Anyone who knows that area, if you had a bus, it would take you no more than 20 minutes to drive in with a bus and get these people out,” Buder said. “They sat there for four or five days with no food, no water, babies getting raped in the bathrooms, there were murders, nobody was doing anything for these people. And we just drove right in, really disgraceful. I don’t want to get too fired up with the rhetoric, but some blame needs to be placed somewhere.”

Ah, “some blame needs to be placed somewhere.” A future lawyer, no doubt.

But seriously — the fact that two-wheel-drive Hyundai or a bus could make it in there in 20 minutes on Saturday, nearly a week after the hurricane and five days after the levees failed most certainly does not mean that they could have made it in there several days before when the police couldn’t move around the city and the National Guard couldn’t get in.

Let’s have some perspective here — the situation is changing constantly in a situation like this. Just because a two-wheel-drive Hyundai could make it to the New Orleans Convention Center on Saturday does not mean that the National Guard could have made it in the previous Tuesday, when the streets near the convention center were under four feet or more of water. Indeed, well before the Duke students got there, firefighters from as far away as California and New York had already arrived, as had National Guard troops from California, Ohio, Arkansas, and other states.

The fact is, the waters have receded somewhat already, and will no doubt continue to do so. You can see this in an excellent day-by-day photo spread put together by the Miami Herald (free registration required but worth it). The photos are sorted by day, and if you keep track you will notice that the number of pictures showing exposed ground and roadways increase as time goes on.

And if you are familiar with the layout of New Orleans, you’ll notice that the flooding downtown is pretty much gone. On Canal Street (which runs from right near the Superdome to right near the Convention Center) , people were wading hip-deep on Tuesday, and walking normally and driving — even in vehicles as fragile as golf carts — by Wednesday.

One brief sort-of personal comment: These Duke students were enterprising, energetic, creative, and gold-hearted. They saw a problem and wanted to make a difference. They were also totally devoid of a context in which to understand what they saw, and as a result over-estimated the significance of their own observations — they simply assumed that what they ahd seen was all there was to see. They also over-estimated their own importance. I was an undergraduate at Duke for four years. This precise combination of enterprise, creativity, and a total lack of perspective is so typical of Duke students you’d think it was an admission requirement. (Maybe it is!)

(Hat tip: David R. Mark.)

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