The flooding covered eighty per cent of the city, leaving dry only a mile-wide sliver of high ground that recalled how New Orleans came to be known as the Crescent City. The mansions of Carrollton and the Garden District, the tall office buildings of the Central Business District, the French Quarter, and the rougher neighborhoods of Faubourg Marigny and Bywater were squeezed between the floodwater and the river. Those in dry New Orleans during the first week of the crisis hardly ever saw cops, or anyone in authority. Except for some orange-and-white Coast Guard helicopters and a few choppers from the Louisiana National Guard, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday went by with little sign of the police or outside help. To those left in the city, it felt as if government at all levels had vanished, as if not only New Orleans but the nation itself had disappeared. Lurid rumors filled the void. A creepy compulsion to believe the worst distorted what New Orleanians saw, heard, and felt, what they chose to do, and what they would remember.
Looters smashed their way along Canal Street, a diverse commercial strip that divides the Central Business District from the French Quarter, grabbing discount clothing, DVDs, and sneakers. Saks Fifth Avenue was sacked and burned. Burglars along St. Claude, the main commercial avenue bordering Faubourg Marigny, cleared taverns’ cashboxes and liquor shelves. In the suburbs, where thieves could use cars to haul booty, they made off with guns, bicycles, and stereos.
Yet what was striking was not how many stores were ransacked but how few. Television crews, their trailers parked on Canal Street, saw the worst. In the French Quarter and the commercial districts along St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street, storefronts stayed largely intact. Antiques and fine art rested behind unshielded plate-glass windows. People pried open pharmacies and grocery stores, taking diapers, aspirin, food, water, and soft drinks, but left wine and liquor on the shelves, intact.
Even at the Superdome and the Convention Center, signature hellholes of the crisis, peace prevailed. Hundreds of policemen and soldiers kept order in the Superdome. Though half a dozen people died there, mostly from natural causes, nobody was murdered. After six days of misery, without air-conditioning, running water, or working toilets, the citizens lined up politely to be bused out. At the Convention Center, where the miasma of hot garbage, sweat, and feces was sickening, there was one apparent homicide, but evacuees generally took care of one another. A group of young black men brought luggage carts from nearby hotels and used them to gather trash into enormous piles. Those who staggered in with food and water shared it. Even though the police presence was at best intermittent, the windows of stores across the street remained unshattered. A brand-new Chevrolet SSR sat unmolested on a side street.
The citizens of New Orleans tried to weave their own safety net. A casting director and a tax attorney who had never met before the storm commandeered a waterskiing boat to salvage wheelchairs and cots from an abandoned hospital and rescue people from roofs and attics. A curly-haired doctor named Jeff Brumberger painted crude red crosses on the side of a white hearse, loaded it with supplies from deserted hospitals and pharmacies, and roamed the city for days, dispensing care and wisecracks. Mama D, a witchy old woman on Dorgenois Street, stoked charcoal grills in her driveway, feeding whoever walked by. A motherly transsexual on St. Claude Avenue kept her tavern open night and day, dispensing dollar beers and free food to comfort the poor and the bewildered.
Yet public officials who might have counselled calm did the opposite. Mayor Nagin declared on television that he’d watched “hooligans killing people, raping people,” but his spokesperson, Sally Forman, told me that he didn’t see them “with his own eyes. He was relying on reports of people in authority.” Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson told the Associated Press, “Looting is out of control. The French Quarter has been attacked.” Police Superintendent Compass tearfully declared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that “little babies” were being raped in the Superdome and told a reporter that people had tried to kidnap him. “In hindsight,” Compass told me later, “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
It was the city’s bad luck that, in addition to relentlessly hot weather, there was a new moon that week, and the nights were utterly dark. I gave a ride home late one evening to a man named Jimmy Delery, a black-sheep member of a founding New Orleans family. We drove slowly among fallen oaks and downed power lines cluttering St. Charles Avenue, and as we got out of the car at his house we heard the double click of a shotgun. Two ripply-fit blond men walked toward us in the gloom, shirtless and gleaming with sweat, wearing bandoliers across their chests and holstered sidearms on their hips. The muzzles of their shotguns looked like the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. “Look, guys,” Delery said. “I know you’re all up on your testosterone, but, please, stay home. Don’t be walking around with the guns. You’re just going to get people agitated.”
The men lowered their guns. “It’s not testosterone, Jimmy,” one of them said. “It’s self-preservation.” I noticed that their shotguns were not hunting weapons pressed into emergency service but stainless-steel combat guns with racks of extra shells mounted on the stocks. At some point, these guys had each spent at least eight hundred dollars to be prepared for an occasion like this.
“Yeah, well, whatever it is, I want you, please, to stay near your houses,” Jimmy said. “You don’t need to be out here, patrolling around.” After they left, he said, “They’re looking to pop somebody so they can brag, ‘I shot a nigger looter in New Orleans.’ ”
Bob Rue, the rug merchant, described stepping outside with his .38, ready to shoot someone lurking by his neighbor’s Porsche. “It’s not about the car,” he said. “It’s about chaos. If you let them get started, there’s no telling where it will end.” Of all the white people I met that week who had chosen to remain in the city, only two were unarmed. Jimmy had a .45 automatic in his fanny pack. The hearse-driving doctor had a Bulgarian Army pistol in his armrest. The motherly barkeeper kept an automatic shotgun beside the door and a revolver in her back pocket. The blackout, the crowds of evacuees straggling through their neighborhoods—and, above all, the rumors—persuaded some citizens that an apocalyptic race riot was imminent. But, even in the absence of police, the unspeakable didn’t come to pass.
For the poor, without resources, the disappearance of authority was genuinely terrifying. Many had never left the city, or southern Louisiana, in all their lives. They faced a terrible choice: turn themselves in to face evacuation or tough it out. If we stay, how long will it be before the power and the water come back on and the grocery stores open? If we go, go where? To the Superdome, where babies are being raped and murdered? To the Convention Center, to get on a bus? A bus to where? (The rumor that evacuees weren’t being told their destination before boarding buses turned out to be true.) With no reliable authority to issue information, the holdouts were paralyzed.
National Guard units from as far away as Puerto Rico showed up in force the weekend after the storm. For the most part, they brought no tools other than M-16s—no chain saws or bulldozers, no grappling hooks, generators, or field hospitals. They were not equipped to clear debris, repair power lines, or deliver mass medical care. Like the city’s armed residents, they had prepared for an uprising, and stood on street corners nervously fingering their weapons. Kevin Shaughnessy, a courtly, gray-haired sergeant first class of the California National Guard, stopped me on St. Charles Avenue to demand I.D., and, after letting me pass, called me back. “Say, you don’t have a map of New Orleans you can spare, do you?” he asked. He also accepted a box of canned food and three gallons of water. “We can sure use it,” he said. The active-duty Army showed up, too, in the form of the 82nd Airborne Division, patrolling in full combat gear and snappy maroon berets, but these soldiers had their magazines out of their rifles. I asked a sergeant first class what he and his men were permitted to do, given constitutional constraints against the military enforcing domestic laws. “We’re just trick-or-treating,” he said. “If I saw someone going in that store right there, I couldn’t do anything but radio it in.”
That weekend felt like a lawman’s Mardi Gras. The dry slice of New Orleans filled not only with federal and state troops but with well-meaning deputy sheriffs and policemen from as far away as Oregon and Michigan—cops whose activities were uncoördinated, who knew nothing of the city, and who were pumped on rumors of violence. They tumbled out of their cars in boxy bulletproof vests, pointing their M-4 carbines every which way, as though expecting incoming rounds. Adding to the Dodge City atmosphere were such private soldiers as those of Blackwater, U.S.A., who lurked on the broad steps of several mansions, draped in automatic weapons. As I sat on the porch of a house on tranquil St. Charles Avenue on the Saturday night after the storm, a red laser dot from a gunsight moved slowly across my chest.
The phrase on the lips of the guest enforcers was “martial law.” An Oklahoma Guardsman stopped me Sunday afternoon and ordered me to get out of town. When I told him that the N.O.P.D. was allowing reporters to stay, he said, “It’s not up to the police. We’re in charge now. The city’s under martial law. We’re not backing them up anymore—they’re backing us up.” Later, a California Guardsman whose emblems identified him as Sergeant Kelley pointed an M-4 at me and said, “See this? This is martial law. We’re in charge.” The Constitution makes no provision for anything called “martial law,” though Article I allows for the possibility of calling out militia—even of suspending habeas corpus—in times of unrest. The sole large-scale unrest afflicting New Orleans that weekend was thirst and a hankering to bathe.
By Sunday, the Convention Center was empty. The only traces of the twenty thousand people who had stayed in its exhibition halls were mountains of moldy clothes, empty water bottles, and the brown plastic wrappings of military rations that had arrived, finally, with the buses. It was spooky: twenty thousand people gone within twenty-four hours.
On Tuesday, September 6th, Mayor Nagin—lacking a computer, or even a typewriter—signed a four-page handwritten “Promulgation of Emergency Order” that directed the police, the Fire Department, and “any branch of the U.S. military” to “compel the evacuation of all persons from the city of New Orleans, regardless of whether such persons are on private property or do not desire to leave.” Nagin’s order frightened the holdouts. Each lawman and soldier seemed to interpret it differently. At Lee Circle, two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents told a couple of old men sitting outside drinking beer that they had to leave the city at once. “We’re using the A.T.M. method,” they barked. “Today we ask. Tomorrow we tell. The day after that, we make you leave.” The men nodded politely, and were still sitting there several days later. On St. Claude Avenue, policemen were ordering people to leave or risk being shot. On Prentiss Avenue, Guardsmen hauled a black fifty-seven-year-old social worker named Ernest Timmons from his house and drove him forcibly to the airport, from where, he told the Times-Picayune, he was flown to Salt Lake City. On the other hand, soldiers calling at the Carrollton home of an engineer merely told him that leaving would be a good idea.
When I tried to leave New Orleans late that week, driving to the Jefferson Parish line on one of the two remaining roads out, officers of the Springboro, Ohio, police department and soldiers of the Oklahoma National Guard refused to let me pass. As frantic drivers lurched through three-point turns, I asked the soldier in charge if he’d been told about the mandatory evacuation. “Sir, turn your vehicle around,” he said.
On Thursday, September 8th, Vice-President Dick Cheney was expected in New Orleans, and television reporters were setting up cameras in Harrah’s driveway, near Tim Bayard’s picnic tables. A medical team offered free tetanus shots. Volunteers manning barbecue grills served hamburgers to anybody who walked by—police officer, soldier, reporter, FEMA official—and the air was thick with greasy smoke. Superintendent Compass showed up for this occasion, in a crisp white dressuniform shirt with four gold stars embroidered on the epaulets. The cameras surrounded him. Off to the side of the grills stood a man who looked wild enough to draw the attention of the Secret Service. It was Anthony Cannatella. He was wearing a filthy white T-shirt, and he clenched and unclenched his enormous fists as he rocked from one foot to the other. “What a clusterfuck,” he muttered. “I ain’t got time for this shit.” His eye fell on Superintendent Compass, who was talking into a reporter’s microphone. “Look at that guy, acting the hero. I need to be back with my officers, saving people. Fucking Vice-President. Come down here and salute, I’m done. I’ll take my forty and go.”
I returned to Harrah’s the next day to try to clear up the question of martial law and who was in charge of New Orleans. Compass was posing for photographs with California sheriffs’ deputies. When he finished, he sat in a folding chair between two cars, his hands in his lap. He slumped there alone, taking in the scene. I asked whether the Oklahoma Guardsman was correct that the N.O.P.D. was subordinate to the military. “I am in charge of all law-enforcement aspects,” Compass said. “Does it look like I’m not in charge?” I asked if he felt cut off, with no phone, no radio, and no staff to help him. He rose from his chair. “Does it look like I’m not in charge?” he asked twice more. “I don’t spend all day here!” And he walked away.
The New Orleans City Council did not meet in full until September 27th. The chamber was inaccessible, so the seven council members gathered in a boardroom at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Half an hour before the meeting, the news came over the radio that Compass had resigned as chief of police. The radio announcers were stunned into silence. They and their call-in listeners had spent weeks vilifying officers who abandoned their posts in the city’s hour of need, and the Chief was now doing essentially the same thing. The room was crowded with hotelkeepers wanting to know if the city’s water was safe for guests to bathe in; real-estate brokers wanting to hear a plan for drying out title records; restaurateurs hoping for a temporary waiver of health regulations; and ordinary citizens eager to hear when the rubble would be removed and services restored.
The council members proceeded to pack about twenty minutes of useful business into five hours of storytelling, self-congratulation, venting of racial mistrust, and false-hope-raising applause lines. Arguments dragged on about the use of the word “black” versus “African-American,” about construction companies not hiring “brothers with felony records,” about why only houses on the poor side of St. Charles Avenue were red-tagged for demolition. (It was the side that flooded.) “Our people need to be made not ninety per cent whole, not ninety-five per cent whole, but one hundred per cent whole!” the council president, Oliver Thomas, declared to a rousing cheer. The council members were as traumatized as any New Orleanians—four of them had lost their homes—so some cathartic group therapy was to be expected. But, as the meeting wore on, people in the crowd began whispering to one another, “What about Compass?” A FEMA representative was patiently absorbing the council’s wrath when Mayor Nagin walked into the room, alone, wearing a blue-and-white golf shirt. He slipped into a chair in the back, rested his chin on his chest, and closed his eyes until called to the podium to report on repairs. When he finished, Eddie Sapir, an at-large councilman, said, “We don’t even know if the news about Chief Compass is true.” “It’s true,” Nagin said. “He’s a hero as far as I’m concerned. He performed very well during the storm. He asks everyone to respect his privacy.”
A few weeks later, I talked with Nagin in the downtown Sheraton, and he was so tired that his eyes often closed while he spoke, and when he listened his face relaxed into a middle-distance stare. He was still cagey about whether he had fired Compass. “Before the storm, he was in decent shape,” Nagin said. But his wife was about to have a baby, and he had his daughter to consider. Nagin had been shaken by the police suicides—there had been a second as well—during the flood, and when Compass said, “Look, man, I’ve done my share,” Nagin didn’t try to talk him out of it. “If someone says they want to leave, I’m not going to tell them otherwise,” Nagin said. “I’m not a psychologist.” Compass wouldn’t discuss the circumstances of his leaving with me. “That part of my life is over,” he said.
One thing that went better than anybody expected was the pumping. After a couple of weeks under a brutal subtropical sun, the water covering the city’s streets had become an opaque, semi-gelatinous brew of sewage, fluids leaked from submerged cars, and bodies of rodents, cats, dogs, and people. Fumes rising from the surface caused a tickly cough, and an hour in a rescue boat raised tiny white bumps on the skin. It was hard to imagine the stuff leaving. But by the end of September the city’s ingenious network of culverts, canals, and pumping stations had pushed it all out of the city and back into Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans emerged smashed and muddy. In vast regions, not even birds broke the silence.
At St. Patrick’s Church, on Camp Street—one of the first to reopen—the congregation for the Tridentine Latin Mass on September 25th consisted of fifteen N.O.P.D. cops, who knelt with their guns on their hips, the murmur of their police radios competing with the liturgy. “We pray,” the Reverend Stanley Klores said to the tops of their bowed heads, “that those in civil authority will not succumb to the temptations of this world. Lord, hear our prayer.” “Lord, hear our prayer,” the officers responded.
The church’s counterweight, Bourbon Street, was also starting to come alive. I walked its length several times one night during the last week of September, and each time another bar crew was taking down barstools and plugging in a jukebox. Tropical Isle, the Steak Pit, Café Lafitte in Exile, and Bourbon Street Blues Company were roaring, the music drowning out the constant growl of generators. Outside the Steak Pit, a ten-year-old boy named Daniel held a sign that read “HUGE ASS BEERS TO GO.” On the sidewalk in front of Alex Patout’s Louisiana Restaurant, a wizened cinder of a chef stirred a cannibal pot of spaghetti sauce on a gas burner. The smell, cutting through the vomit-and-mold reek that hung over the city, was heavenly. Except for a few buff F.B.I. women carrying Glocks, a reedy scientist from the E.P.A., and about a dozen determined, don’t-joke-about-it dogrescuers from the Humane Society, the Bourbon Street crowd was all strapping men from myriad law-enforcement agencies, in camouflage fatigues, golf shirts, or T-shirts advertising restoration companies—LVI Services, Belfor—their guns at their sides. Noticeably absent was the New Orleans Police Department; a few cops leaned sullenly into cell phones at the entrance to the Royal Sonesta Hotel, whose formerly radiant ballroom had become the new Police Headquarters.
By then, hardly anyone was left in New Orleans to police. Cannatella’s Sixth District officers moved back to their station house and made desultory patrols, but mostly they gathered around a couple of long folding tables in the open-sided garage under the station—with no electricity, it was the least oppressively hot place to sit—and occupied themselves with such tasks as cleaning pistols that had been submerged for several weeks. They wore purple cards around their necks announcing, in big yellow letters, “ECSTASY.” Most of the eight hundred and ninety cops who had lost their homes were living on the cruise ship of that name, docked behind the Convention Center. Tim Bruneau wore no “ECSTASY” badge, because he’d been expelled from the ship for pulling a gun on another officer and a crewman. “I was sleeping!” he told me. “They screwed up and assigned my room to someone else, and when they came barging in I freaked out! Forgive me! I asked them, ‘Where am I supposed to go now?’ And you know what they said? They said, ‘We don’t care.’ ”
The adrenaline high that had sustained many cops through the crisis was wearing off. They complained about the cramped conditions aboard the Ecstasy, about unpaid overtime throughout the crisis, about case files lost in the flooded evidence room. Tim Bayard, the vice-and-narcotics commander, finally found the mobile command post he had needed so badly the first week of the flood: driving through the Lower Ninth Ward, he saw it in a parking lot. It had been commandeered by firemen. He was so angry he didn’t stop, for fear of getting into a fistfight.
Anthony Cannatella did not take his forty and go. He swung his unmarked gold Crown Victoria into the Sixth’s garage one October afternoon, and called for everybody’s attention. Shaved and cleaned up, he looked powerful, with his bald head, slit mouth, and bull shoulders. Patrolwoman Kristi Foret, the rookie who had been stranded on her roof two days and then had helped her rescuers save other victims, put her arm around him, and he hugged her to his side while delivering a briefing. “We should have our overtime on Thursday or Friday of this week. Start checking your bank accounts on Friday,” he said. “Next, I got a bunch of off-duty details to announce. Wal-Mart will pay thirty dollars an hour. They need two during the day, two at night. They pay every Friday at Marrero School, in cash. Now, don’t fuck with the I.R.S.—Wal-Mart’s not going to not report what they’re paying for security. Fuck with the I.R.S., they don’t give a shit about ten Katrinas. They’ll shove it right up your ass. Next: We still got Wal-Mart guns missing. Four shotguns. Turn them in, no questions asked. They’ll be on the A.T.F. hot list. Don’t embarrass yourself.” He ended with a joke. “Next: There’s a T-shirt going around. It’s blue, and it says, ‘Katrina 2005: I stayed, I worked, I was there, I am—the N.O.P.D.’ I asked for another two hundred and fifty, in yellow: ‘I ran, I left my buddies, I was—a coward.’ ”
“You’re not assigned here anymore,” Cannatella had told a sergeant who deserted and then tried to come back. Alan Bartholomew, who ran out on Tim Bruneau, was unrepentant and gave reasons that sounded a lot like what Nagin says Compass told him. “Look, man, I stayed that whole week,” he said, when I reached him by phone in Jefferson Parish. “No electricity, no radio communications. I hadn’t heard from my wife and kids. . . . I finally decided this, this job . . .” He sighed, looking for words to describe the thanklessness of being a New Orleans cop. “I decided that my family was more important.” More than a hundred and fifty officers were fired or left the department after failing to perform during the crisis. Another forty are under investigation.
On another afternoon, an N.O.P.D. patrol car pulled up outside the Sixth District with a big-screen TV hanging out of the trunk—an attentiongetting sight, given the tales of cops looting. The officers swung open the back of one of three eighteen-wheeler trailers parked on the street, revealing a mountain of bicycles, appliances, diapers, stereos, office furniture. The cops hoisted the big-screen TV into the back. “When we recover looted goods, this is where we keep it,” Cannatella said. “We figure it’s all from Wal-Mart. They’ve already written it all off, so I’m going to ask them to donate it to my officers who lost everything.”
Nagin’s emergency order authorizing cops to commandeer private property required that owners be compensated. Doug Stead, at Sewell Cadillac, lost more than two hundred cars—some to cops, some to looters who followed when the police left the dealership open—but he has not received a call about the cars from either the police department or the city attorney.
A sense of failure, and of failures to come, hangs over the department. Frank Young, a laconic Sixth District detective sergeant who shuttled people to the Convention Center on the night of the flood, pointed to the slogan on the fender of a patrol car on loan to the N.O.P.D. from another city—“Excellence in Policing”—and said, “Obviously not ours.” He drove the car late one night to his house in Lakeview, which borders the ruptured Seventeenth Street Canal. Standing in the back door of his bungalow, he shined a flashlight into the kitchen. The refrigerator lay on its side, a moldy sofa was wedged in the doorway, and black ooze covered the granite countertops he’d installed himself. “Today, it finally hit me,” he said softly. “I woke up and thought, There’s nothing here for me. Not at work. Not at home. What did we accomplish? Nothing. We took such an ass-whipping. We didn’t stop the flooding. We didn’t stop the looting. The whole city got destroyed. We lost.”
Warren Riley, the new chief, still insists that the N.O.P.D. didn’t fail but was overwhelmed. “You take any military commander—any lawenforcement commander—this was a far more formidable opponent than anyone has had to deal with,” he said. John Casbon, the president of the New Orleans Police Foundation, a private agency that raises money for training and equipment, said all American cities need to take better care of their police. “Nobody gives a shit about cops anywhere,” Casbon said. “They get paid nothing. We don’t give them the equipment. That’s the lesson here.” Lots of cops, though, think that a more professional department would have done better. “That they had no cars and no gasoline isn’t important. You put them on foot beats. You put them on bicycles,” Felix Loicano, the former Public Integrity Division commander, said. “If you have to take cars, you sign them out in an orderly fashion and then secure the building, because now it’s your responsibility.”
Yes, the levees should have been built stronger or better, the city should have had an evacuation plan for those without cars, the governor should have called for help earlier, and FEMA should have responded more vigorously. But the police owned the failure. However much other agencies pass the buck, cops know they’re responsible for the safety of a city.
Tim Bruneau used to think of the department as family, and he still thinks of his district that way. But now he’s eager to leave. New Orleans still reminds him of Panama, but in a bad way: autocratic, incompetent, corrupt. “I’m leaving first chance I get,” Bruneau told me. “I’m going to the University of North Texas to study emergency management. I’ve given this city my health, my physical ability, my little finger, and everything I own. Now they want more, and I have nothing left.”Cannatella is expecting an exodus. At one of his roll-call briefings in the garage, he made a case for standing by the city and the battered, despised police department that he has served since graduating from high school. “Every one of you has been here from the first, and I know you’re contemplating your options,” he said. “Some of you are thinking that this big fat overtime check is coming—maybe you’ll take it and go. If that’s what you want to do, I’m not angry.” He stopped, emotionally gesturing with his big hands while searching for the right words. “But this is a history-making event. Out of this will be a new city, and there’s no new city without cops.”