Not a lovely experience, but something that has helped form me. There is a documentary about Katrina today, with the 5 year anniversary here.
This was the exact article I had published in Marie Claire in November 2005.
It was largely taken from my diary that I wrote during my time trapped there, but re-written by a features editor after an interview with me.
The photos are my own and were not part of the magazine article. The comments in brackets are my comments now, not from the article)
My Nightmare in the Superdome
Fuck this. The hurricane has come to New Orleans. I’m woken from a deep, alcohol induced slumber by a loud banging on my door. A note on our backpackers’ hostel fridge tells us that there is a mandatory evacuation of the city. “Don’t worry”, says the scribble, “Hurricanes in New Orleans means party time.”
Me and the other travellers are being bused to the city’s huge sports arena, the Superdome. Once there, it’s chaos. People are collapsing all around. When the rain starts, the swelling crowd screams. Although I’m with Rob, another student, I feel panicky.
I’m searched for guns and drugs before I go inside. There are 12,000 of us here – mostly poor black families.
(Rob took this photo using my camera. I am tucked away at the back, you can see my head over the girl's shoulder. I couldn't think of taking photos. This picture shows quite a relaxed atmosphere, the pushing and panic had yet to start)
Oh my God. I’m woken by this horrible sound. Bits of the roof are blowing off. I sit terrified, curled up on a plastic seat. No one tells us what is happening. Scarily, the latest rumour is that the Superdome won’t withstand the hurricane. My phone has no signal, so I can’t text Mum to tell her I’m OK.
By the afternoon, National Guard soldiers hand out ration packs. I begin to realise that things must be bad and we’ll be here a while. People are starting to get a little crazy.
(This is the ration pack I still have. It is what the army eat, and it heats up. It is designed to be very high calorie and balanced.)
I can’t smile anymore, and I can’t contact home, so how will I ever get out? We hear there has been a rape, a suicide and a murder in here. An Australian guy tells us it’s not safe to be alone. A soldier says the generator is about to fail, so we’ll be in darkness and a riot may break out. I’m terrified.
I only know this because I’m white, and the soldiers keep chatting to the British women.
When it was just Rob and me, the locals looked out for us, but now all the white backpackers have congregated into a group, its turned into ‘them and us’. I feel vulnerable.
The soldiers are looking more anxious. “People will go crazy and attack you!” they say. The girls spend the night huddled together, surrounded by a ring of guys. Two of them stay awake and break chairs to use the metal poles as weapons. I can’t believe it has come to this.
Last night was horrendous. I heard shouting, and drinks machines being smashed. There’s no sanitation and it’s so smelly. My hair is greasy and I feel a wreck. There are crack alleys among the maze of corridors. The lights are broken in the loos which, as well as being disgusting, have become dangerous, so we now only go as a big group.
More people are arriving, and the dome is like a refugee camp. I see two soldiers carrying a corpse and we hear there are more dead in the basement.
Some soldiers join us, as they are too scared to be anywhere else in the dome. Just when I think I’ll never get out of this hell, Bud, an Australian who has got to know an army sergeant, says it’s too dangerous to stay, as we’ll be mugged.
Suddenly we’re being smuggled out in groups of five, so as not to arouse suspicion. We don’t know where we’re going. If anyone knows we’re leaving already, they’ll go mad. As we walk through the dome, people throw bottles at us and shout racist abuse. God knows what they’d do if they knew we were getting preferential treatment. I feel so guilty.
Yesterday was crazy. We escaped only to be moved into the basketball arena next door with hundreds of sick and elderly. The rumour is that after the sick, the foreigners will be next to get out of New Orleans but, oh my God, the smell. Everyone wears medical masks, but there are none left for us.
We’re told to sanitise our hands and put gloves on if we want to help, as there aren’t enough doctors. I look after an old man in a wheelchair who is wearing just a nappy and clean him up after he wets himself.
In the morning we find a working payphone, so I ring Mum. She says the story is big news. Thank God people know where we are. I’m tired and hungry, but at least there is hope we will be helped.
Still waiting. Last night, our hopes were quashed again. National Guard soldiers planned to smuggle us to the airport, but they changed their minds. We now have to hide in the hotel next door to the dome. We’re rushed in and told to move away from the windows to the corner of the room where we can’t be seen. “People are desperate now and you’ll be attacked,” we’re warned again.
We spend the night on the ballroom floor. The guy break into the bar for beer only to be told by the hotel staff that we’ll be chucked out to the mob if we don’t pay for it.
Bud says that coaches have been arranged to take the internationals to Dallas airport. We’re told to get our stuff and line up. Despite the apparent rush, we wait, filthy and hot, for hours. When they finally come, we wade through knee-high water to get to them, but I don’t care – I’m going home.
For the 12 hours it takes to reach the border, we’re still in danger of being hi-jacked. But finally we make it, and people greet us with sweets and cookies. It’s touching to see locals who don’t hate us.
When we get to Dallas, it’s a relief to be met by men from the embassy. They take our passport numbers and parents’ phone numbers, then tell us to go a hotel and flights will be arranged tomorrow. But as we check in at 5am, I have mixed feelings. I can’t help thinking that when a poor black men jumps off a bridge, or when a homeless woman prostitutes herself in the loos of the Superdome, no one cares. Clutching my passport, I reflect for the first time ever how grateful I am for being white.
(Me on the plane home. I look decpetively ok, but I was still in some shock. It was the first time we had seen the news, and we didn't talk much on the way home.)
My follow up reflections are here.