Hurricane Katrina was seven years ago. New Orleans is still recovering and has dodged a bullet already this hurricane season. One of the most damaging storms to ever hit the US, Katrina's fallout was social chaos, and over 1400 deaths. While many residents were able to flee the city before the storm hit most of the elderly, the poor and disabled were left behind. Those without transportation were stuck. Some trusted the levees would hold. Even Pres Bush said he was surprised the levees were breached even though there were warnings for weeks. The city descended into chaos with rumors of massive looting and shootings. The 25,000 people holed up in the Superdome were without essentials like water, food, power, and security for days.
I revisited this nightmare this week reading David Egger's story of one man who stayed behind in New Orleans to help during the storm. Zeitoun is the name of the book and the name of the man who survived, barely, Katrina. It is a must read. Zeitoun is a Muslim, and American, and businessman and family man who had lived in New Orleans for years. He had a home remodel/painting business which he and his wife ran. He employed several people. He had been through many storms so while his family left to stay with friends, he chose to stay and keep watch over his business concerns. Soon he realized he was in over his head, literally,as the first floor of his home was under water. He lived on the roof for days and he took trips by canoe to see if others needed his help. He saved lives, and ferried the sick and elderly to safety. Praying every night he sensed God had him stay in the city to help others. He had a mission. What he failed to see was the sense of chaos and fear building in the city. He couldn't know what was happening or how bad it was because he had no power, no communication. All he had was a daily call to his wife who begged him to leave and join them but he was energized by his mission from God. He didn't know about Mayor Nagin's "martial law" or Governor Blanco's call for help to the military, who had M-16's and were trained to shoot and kill, and I am sure they will, as she said. The police and military came and heard reports of looting, and shootings, and even the possiblity of terror cells operating in the city and waiting for just a crisis like this to launch an attack. Zeitoun, the Muslim, was apprehended in one of the homes he owned and rented out, along with a Muslim friend, a professor at Tulane, and one of his renters. They were taken to a makeshift outdoor jail where they were housed in cages. No rights read, no court, no statement of charges, no phone call; no one knew where they were. They were kept that way for days. Without sleep, and few meals, and daily humiliations like being strip searched and forced to use toilets set out in the open, the men were broken down. Zeitoun spent a month in confinement; the others were held for almost a year.
It is a chilling story that you don't expect to read about citizens of the US experiencing in their own homeland. It's a powerful reminder of the need to advocate for basic civil rights for all people. For in times of uncertainty, those rights are the first to go.