Third World Scenes

By Eugene Robinson
Monday, September 5, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- The wretched shelters at the Superdome and the convention center were finally emptied this weekend, so the last place you could really grasp the enormity of what happened here was the airport. You thought you were in Haiti or Angola, not the United States, and you understood why so many of the people who survived the past week are filled with exhausted rage.

On the lower level, where normally you would come to meet an arriving flight, thousands of people stood in a ragged line, wearing and carrying all they had in this world. I saw maybe a few dozen whites; all the rest were black. It was one of those Third World lines that goes nowhere for a long time, then lurches forward, then backs up, then stalls again. Hundreds of rifle-toting soldiers were there to keep order, but no one had the inclination or energy for disorder.

Upstairs, where normally you would have checked in for a flight, was much worse.

A big atrium was being used as a field hospital, where patients lay on row after row of cots, just a foot or two apart. Most were elderly, and many seemed to be just clinging to life. The place stank of urine and sweat. A steady stream of ambulances came to deposit more patients, who were carted in by more soldiers, but there were never any sirens. What would be the point? What wasn't an emergency?

Throughout the rest of the long terminal, past all the check-in counters, ran another endless line of bedraggled survivors -- this was the head of the line that began outside. These people were about to be put onto planes. Some didn't even know where they were going, just that they were going away and might never come back.

There I met John Mullen III, a retired schoolteacher who told me how he came to be in that line.

Mullen, who is African American, lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, an almost all-black neighborhood. He was in bed when the levee failed and the fast-rising water woke him up. "By the time I could walk across the room, it went from here," and he indicated mid-calf, "to here," he said, raising his hand to mid-thigh.

He and the rest of his family somehow made it out of the house and saw that a neighbor's boat had floated loose, so they and others managed to grab hold, 18 people in all. "We paddled over to Martin Luther King Elementary School, where I used to teach," he said. As they passed houses at the roofline, he remembered seeing that "the cockroaches had climbed as high as they could, and the redfish were just snapping them up."

Rescuers guided them to a bridge and promised to come back for them but never did, so that's where they spent the night. In the morning they started walking toward the convention center, but when they got close and the water shallowed out they had to abandon the boat and all the supplies they had managed to bring. At the convention center there was no food or water. Somehow, since no one else would do it, Mullen's group ended up trying to care for two elderly Alzheimer's sufferers. "A lot of people were dying," he said. "They're still out there dying."

Finally they were bused to the airport, and Mullen was about to be flown to San Antonio. He greeted the prospect almost with a shrug. "My house is under 20 feet of water. We've lost everything."

Mullen has a schoolteacher's kindly demeanor, so it was jarring to hear him say he suspected that the levee breaks had somehow been engineered to keep the wealthy French Quarter and Garden District dry at the expense of poor black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward -- a suspicion I heard from many other black survivors. And it was surprising to hear Mullen's gentle voice turn bitter as he described the scene at the convention center, when helicopters bringing food didn't even land and the soldiers "just pushed the food out like we were in the Third World. That's what made people go off. They just pushed it at us."

On the way out, I literally stumbled into the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was just finishing a visit to the airport. He looked genuinely shaken. The line he used for the television cameras was practiced -- "This looks like the hold of a slave ship" -- but there was no way to practice the horror in his eyes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company