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At A Shelter Of Last Resort, Decency Prevailed Over Depravity

Johnny Jackson looks out the back door of his home as he talks to his neighbors in New Orleans. Jackson's home is still under construction 10 years after Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed his property.
David Gilkey

In the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, law enforcement in New Orleans erroneously told evacuees to gather at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to await rescue.

They couldn't send them to the Superdome, which was already overcrowded and squalid. Yet more and more people were emerging wet and bewildered from their flooded neighborhoods with nowhere to go. Officials later estimated that 25,000 people were huddled inside the vast convention center — the length of four city blocks — and on the sidewalk. Day after day they waited for buses, but no one came. The fiasco at the convention center came to epitomize the disorganized, inadequate response to the disaster by local, state and federal officials.

'This Is Craziness!'

Conditions at the convention center were worse than those inside a third-world refugee camp. Throngs of people were thirsty, hungry, hot and filthy. Babies in soiled diapers wailed. Old people slumped in wheelchairs.

Families were camped out inside the handsome building — which a few days before had hosted the Wheel of Fortune game show. They tried to maintain their dignity as they gagged from the stench of raw sewage that had soaked the carpet.

"This is craziness. Not one public official has come here even though we hear 'em on the radio talkin' their s***. Not one person from the convention center. Not one person from the Red Cross. [Dead] bodies are here. ...This is craziness!" said Johnny Jackson Jr., a former city councilman, state representative and then-president of the beloved local music station, WWOZ.

Last month, 10 years after the epic storm, Jackson sat down for an interview and listened to that recording of himself at the convention center.

"Yeah, that bring back memories," he says, his voice husky. "Bring back real memories. Mmmh. Probably one of the most depressing moments."

It's been a rough decade for Johnny Jackson. Now 71, he has suffered a stroke, diabetes and cancer. He still meets his brothers at the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club and volunteers for community improvement projects. After the storm, he moved to McKinney, Texas, though he comes back to New Orleans all the time.

Jackson is asked what he learned from that traumatic experience.

"Normally one would think that that kind of situation would bring out the worst in people," he recalls. "But in this case, it was completely the reverse. I think everybody recognized they were in the same boat. And I saw more of a lookin' out for each other rather than preyin' on each other."

It seemed that decency prevailed over depravity.

Hotel employees across the street from the teeming masses came out every day to grill hot dogs and hamburgers and pass them out. Jackson says young men who found water bottles took what they needed and distributed the rest. When people broke into the Riverwalk Marketplace mall next door, they took one pair of sneakers and gave away two more.

At the time, several evacuees described personal encounters with marauding gangs of young men who terrorized people in the convention center. But the widely circulated reports of the rape and throat-slashing of a young girl in a bathroom, and of bodies stacked in a walk-in refrigerator simply never happened. Authorities later called them "emotional hallucinations."

"The other thing I learned was simply that sometimes you can't believe all you hear," Jackson says.

'It Really Changed My Life'

The microphone was magnetic on that afternoon of Sept. 1, 2005, on the sidewalk in front of the building. People pressed in to tell the world they were stranded and this was not supposed to happen in the world's richest country.

A man with gold caps on his teeth, a baby in his arms and wildness in his eyes walked up to the microphone.

"I'm about to fall out, my family's about to fall out," he said, his voice rising. "We haven't eaten in three to four days. These babies they sick. Everybody around here needs water, we don't have no cold water. We don't have water to wash our kids."

He was Kevin Goodman, a house painter and Mardi Gras Indian chief. Goodman is now 55. He still paints houses and masks with the Flaming Arrows. He is gradually moving back to New Orleans from Austin, Texas, where he was evacuated after the storm.

"You know, everybody there just felt like trash, like part of the garbage that was there," he remembers, "because that's the kind of impact it left on us. It was like we was left for dead."

Goodman says things were never the same for him after the five days he spent with his family sleeping on a piece of carpet outside the convention center.

"You know, it really changed my life because it really let me know how important life was. You can't take life for granted. Every day you have to value life. And I don't value material stuff as much as I did before the hurricane," he says.

The city of New Orleans has a new hurricane protocol. In the event of a mandatory evacuation, citizens who can't get out of town on their own should gather at one of 17 evacuation pickup points. The city will move them to a staging area where buses are supposed to take them to shelters out of town.

No longer are there unofficial shelters or official shelters-of-last-resort like the Superdome and the Morial Convention Center.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018 and again in 2019, he won a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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