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'To Me, It Just Seems Like Black People Are Marked'

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La., Sept. 1 -- It seemed a desperate echo of a bygone era, a mass of desperate-looking black folk on the run in the Deep South. Some without shoes.

It was high noon Thursday at a rest stop on the edge of Baton Rouge when several buses pulled in, fresh from the calamity of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Hundreds piled out, dragging themselves as if floating through some kind of thick liquid. They were exhausted, some crying.

"It was like going to hell and back," said Bernadette Washington, 38, a black homemaker from Orleans Parish who had slept under a bridge the night before with her five children and her husband. She sighed the familiar refrain, stinging as an old-time blues note: "All I have is the clothes on my back. And I been sleeping in them for three days."

While hundreds of thousands of people have been dislocated by Hurricane Katrina, the images that have filled the television screens have been mainly of black Americans -- grieving, suffering, in some cases looting and desperately trying to leave New Orleans. Along with the intimate tales of family drama and survival being played out Thursday, there was no escaping that race had become a subtext to the unfolding drama of the hurricane's aftermath.

"To me," said Bernadette Washington, "it just seems like black people are marked. We have so many troubles and problems."

"After this," her husband, Brian Thomas, said, "I want to move my family to California."

He was holding his 2-year-old, Qadriyyah, in his left arm. On Thomas's right hand was a crude bandage. He had pushed the hand through a bedroom window on the night of the hurricane to get to one of his children.

"He had meat hanging off his hand," his wife said. They live -- lived -- on Bunker Hill Road in Orleans Parish, a mostly black section of New Orleans.

When the hurricane hit, Thomas, a truck driver, said he came home from work, looked at every one of the people he loves, and stood in the middle of the living room. Thinking. He's the Socrates in the family -- but time was running out.

"I only got a five-passenger car," he said.

"Chevy Cavalier," said his wife.

"And," Thomas continued, "I stood there, thinking. I said, 'Okay, it's 50-50 if the water will get through.' "

Within hours the water rose, and it kept rising.

"But then I said, 'If we do take the car, some of us would be sitting on one another's laps.' And the state troopers were talking about making arrests."

Instead, he pushed the kids out a window. They scooted to the roof, some pulling themselves up with an extension cord.

"The rain was pouring down so hard," Washington said. "And we had a 3-month-old and a 2-year-old."

The 3-month-old, Nadirah, was sleeping in her mother's arms. "All I had was water to give her," said Washington, her voice breaking, her other children sitting on the concrete putting talcum power inside their soaked sneakers. "She's premature," she went on, about the 3-month-old. "She came May 22. Was supposed to be here July 11. I had her early because I have high blood pressure. Had to have her by C-section."

Bernadette Washington was suddenly worried about her blood pressure medicine. She reached inside her purse. "Look," she said. "All the pills are stuck together."

Both parents had been thinking about the hurricane, the aftermath, the looting, the politicians who might come to Louisiana and who might not. And their own holding-on lives, now jangly like bedsprings suddenly snapped.

"It says there'll come a time you can't hide. I'm talking about people. From each other," Bernadette Washington said.

Thomas, the philosopher, waved his bandaged hand. He had a theory: "God's angry with New Orleans. It's an evil city. The worst school system anywhere. Rampant crime. Corrupt politicians. Here, baby, have a potato chip for daddy."

The 2-year-old, Qadriyyah, took a chip from her daddy and gobbled it up. Her face was covered with mosquito bites. But she smiled just to be in daddy's arms.

Thomas continued: "A predominantly black city -- and they're killing each other. God had to get their attention with a calamity. New Orleans ain't seen an earthquake yet. You can get away from a hurricane but not an earthquake. Next time, nobody may get out."

In the middle of the storm, little Ernest Washington, 9, had grown into a hero.

Washington and Thomas consider Ernest, Bernadette's nephew, their own now. They adopted him after his mother, Donna Marie Washington, died not long ago of AIDS.

"She was a runaway," said Washington, able to sound sorrowful for the child even in her current straits. "She had run away when she was 14. We don't know how she got the AIDS."

While Thomas was figuring his family's fate that first night, little Ernest bolted to the rooftop.

He had fashioned a white flag on a piece of stick, and began waving. "That is one courageous boy," Thomas said.

A helicopter passed them by. A National Guard unit passed them by.

"Black National Guard unit, too," piped in Warren Carter, Washington's brother-in-law.

In the South, the issue of race -- black, white -- always seems as ready to come rolling off the tongue as a summer whistle. A black Guard unit, passing them by. Something Carter won't soon forget.

Before long the whole family, watching the water rise, made it to the roof. Three men in a boat -- "two black guys and an Arab," Washington said -- rode by and left some food on the roof of a van parked nearby. Ernest went and retrieved the food.

"A little hustler he is," Thomas said.

"Child [is] something else," Washington said.

It took two days for a helicopter to fetch them. They were delivered not to some kind of shelter, but to a patch of land beneath a freeway.

"I thought we were going to die out there," Bernadette Washington said. "We had to sleep on the ground. Use the bathroom in front of each other. Laying on that ground, I just couldn't take it. I felt like Job."

Then, somehow, a bus, and then Baton Rouge. At that moment, a lady -- white -- came by the rest stop and handed her some baby items.

"Bless you," Washington said.

That exchange forced something from Warren Carter: "White man came up to me little while ago and offered me some money. I said thank you, but no thanks. I got money to hold us over. But it does go to show you that racism ain't everywhere."

Under the hot sun, Brian Thomas was staring into an expanse of open air. They expected another relative to arrive soon and assist them in continuing their exodus.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company