Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Hoping for Superdome Refugees (vlog30)

Hoping for Superdome h.264 video (Quicktime 7) and
Hoping for Superdome mp3 audio

In the New Orleans SuperDome, now being called the "TerrorDome" or "Dome of Despair"...

The following is from Monday's NOLA.COM newslog -

Amid chaos, a rare voice of strength
By Brian Thevenot Staff writer

In front of the Convention Center on Saturday, amid a crowd of refugees weeping and trading stories of raped children and dead babies in freezers, an elderly woman in a yellow shirt lay near death, tremors coursing through her limbs.

Afew minutes later, she stopped shaking. And yet, in that hell, Anita Roach raised her voice to the heavens, belting out the gospel standards that had comforted her since childhood: through homelessness, through friendlessness, through the death of her son and through the flood that nearly killed her and her husband in their Lower 9th Ward home.

"When the storm
Of life is raging,
Stand by me, stand by me..."

Five days after Hurricane Katrina, as National Guardsmen and evacuation buses finally pulled onto Tchoupitoulas Street a block away, Roach stood out as a beacon of beauty and strength against a backdrop of death and despair. As she began to sing, a group of over-stressed National Guardsmen carted away the nearby woman’s newly dead body to put it with many others.

First they placed her body on the street corner, then carried it through an employee entrance guarded by machine guns and laid her to rest in a freezer.

Roach never stopped singing, never stopped smiling, never stopped comforting a crowd of some of the last of Hurricane Katrina’s victims to receive even a shred of assistance. She sang from her belly with a voice that could be heard down the block, drowning out cries for help and the rumble of National Guard trucks. One by one, family, friends complete strangers joined her, clapping and singing as she led them as she had choir director at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Bridge City.

"When this world
Is tossing me Like a ship on the raging sea
Thou who rulest the winds and water Stand by me, stand by me"

Roach had arrived at the Convention Center to find a chaotic scene, where the only food or water or booze came from looters and people desperate to survive. Each day brought several new promises of buses for evacuation, each prompting a futile migration to a pickup spot where buses didn’t arrive.

Each night brought the terror of darkness, thuggery and mob rule. Several times a day, witnesses said, gunshots rang out, prompting stampedes that they said had killed at least one child. Others said a girl - age estimates ranged from 10 to 14 - had been raped in a bathroom, her throat cut. Untreated medical emergencies caused far more deaths, witnesses said. As in the rest of the flooded city, no one had started counting the dead while the living remain in imminent danger of adding to their ranks.

"New Orleans of all places," said Jesse Jones, 57, sitting a few feet from Roach. People’s eyes light up when you say, ’New Orleans.’ Everybody wants to come here and play, and now they forget about us. They just sent us food and water last night. I just can’t believe this is happening in America."

Roach’s husband, Salvatore Hall, said the infirm had no medical attention for days. "We’ve got people out here with oxygen tanks that have run out, and they are lying to them saying they haven’t, so they won’t panic," he said.

Still Roach sang. She prayed and laid her hands on the afflicted. She thanked God to be alive. She shared food, water, hope and comfort, and repeated the same line to the broken souls who sought her shoulder to cry on.

"He saved us from the water, sweetie," she told a weeping woman, a stranger who had come to her to bum a light for her cigarette.

"He won’t abandon us in the aftermath."

"Just please pray for my daughter," the woman sobbed. "I ain’t seen her since Sunday."

Miraculous event

Roach had turned to singing and praying when she herself panicked in her attic at 2510 Tupelo St. in the Lower 9th Ward. When the flood first came, Roach and her husband had been sleeping.

"Then the Lord woke me up, and I stepped into the water. When I went into the kitchen, the refrigerator was already floating. We wanted to get into it and float on it, like a boat, but it didn’t work."

The water had risen past the first story in a matter of minutes, then the second. When the couple got into the attic, it rose again to the height of their chests, forcing them onto the roof, where the wind drove the rain into their skin so hard it felt like a thousand tiny knives.

She cried out: "Lord! Wake up, Jesus! Wake up! Stop the wind and the rain, Jesus. You said in your word that you would give us what we need."

Then her husband cracked, weeping, hysterical. He could see no way out: He knew he could swim, but his wife couldn’t, and the current might swallow him up even if he had a mind to abandon her, which he didn’t.

The sight of her husband weeping brought strength back to Roach - someone had to be strong. Then he drew on her strength, and they concentrated on trying to help a neighbor.

They saw their neighbor Brenda Carter on her roof two houses away. Again, the situation seemed hopeless.

What happened next Roach attributed to divine intervention, as it was entirely too incredible for simple luck.

The house between their two houses collapsed and floated across the street. Then Roach and Hall felt their house shift, as if headed for the same grim fate. It began listing and revolving, but it suddenly stopped.

When they looked up, their house was touching Carter’s, and they could walk from roof to roof. They huddled together on Roach’s roof, at last together in their fight for survival.

"It had to be God," Roach said. "Who else but a God could do something like that?"

The rescue boat arrived Tuesday night, when a whole new struggle for survival began.

Roach and Hall walked to the Poland Avenue side of the St. Claude Avenue bridge, a collection point for the thousands of people rescued from the flooded Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. They found no help there, only empty promises of a National Guard truck to pick them up. They spent another whole day there before a civilian volunteer took them to the Convention Center. "Once they put us on the bridge, we had nothing. They were finished with us," she said.

'We still got hope'

Once at the Convention Center they heard more empty promises.

No help materialized until Saturday morning when Arkansas Guardsmen brought meals and water and coordinated the mass evacuation on school buses from across the state.

Before that, the only respite had been a helicopter drop of food, which for Roach was a depressing sight. "They dropped food on us like we’re animals or we have some kind of disease, not like they’re serving it to us now," she said.

Roach’s family and that of her husband had suffered their own medical perils. Hall’s aunt, Geraldine Valera, 71, stood weeping at the street corner near Roach. On top of myriad health problems, she had fallen in the back of a National Guard truck. She winced in pain.

"You can’t even wash off your face in this place," she stammered.

"There’s fights every night, you’re laying on the floor sleeping, not knowing when you’re going to get trampled."

Her husband Calvin Brown, Hall’s uncle, had none of the medicine he needed. "I’ve seen people die. I’ve been in World War II and Korea, and I’ve never suffered like this," he said. "I’ve got a son who’s a captain in the Fire Department, and I’m sure he’d come get me if he knew I was here. But I don’t know where he is."

The singing from Roach, her husband and the crowd that often joined in didn’t magically cure such ills, but it did go a long way toward keeping up their spirits.

Jones sat a few feet away, with bleary, red eyes and a mind tortured by the death of a close friend who had collapsed in front of him. But the singing soothed him. And more: He said it had headed off a near riot.

"We had some rioting going on the other night, but when she broke out in a spiritual song it just sent a wave of calm through the whole crowd," he said. "None of our preachers, none of our evangelists - Paul Morton and all of them - have even come here to see this. And they’ve got buses, jets and everything. But we still got hope."

It made Roach feel better, too. "It makes me feel so good that I can do that for people," she said. "Like when God calmed the sea, that I can give somebody peace," she said.