A first hand view of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath:

A first hand account of Hurricane Katrina

The mainstream media has been woefully deficient in reporting Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I was there. Well, not really; 80 miles away in Baton Rouge. But I still know it intimately, here let me share: The tree at one corner took out the front porch of the house at the corner; another 80 foot tall tree knocked down cleaved the house around the corner from me in half, diagonally. Fortunately, no tree fell on my house; the street was a mess. The electric went out in my house about midnight, and the last TV station I could get on my internet was reporting from Lake Charles, about 150 miles to the west of me; by morning the electric was on. I lived in downtown Baton Rouge at the time, some four blocks from what would be a major refugee center: the Baton Rouge Civic Center, and six blocks from city hall.

I was in the process of writing “A Hidden Impact: the Czechs and Slovaks of Louisiana from 1720 to today” – and I was also busy helping the old man I now take care of. Back then he was 84 years old, and today he’s 89, and I live with him now; but didn’t then. He’s a WWII vet. So I was at his house, battening down the hatches, three days before the storm. Because of my website, and using his phone number to find more info for my book ( I had no home phone,) I received a phone call three days before the storm hit: “Hi, I’m Olga Balkova, of the Slovak National Radio, can you speak to me?”

“Sure, what do you want?”

What she wanted was information about Slovaks in Louisiana – all I had was historical information. But she asked me “Will you be willing to give information about the storm as it hits?”

“Yes,” I said “but not in Slovak or Czech.” I speak the languages, but not fluently enough.

So starting that day she asked me questions in Slovak, then in English, and I gave my answers in English, which she translated to Slovak – live on the air! Every three hours – for days!

The next day she called, and she said her Czech colleagues also wanted to talk to me.

So I said, “sure.”

And lo, I was on Czech NPR (or the equivalent) being translated into Czech, too. (My relatives in Prague heard and saw me, so called my mother; “What?!” she said.)

Then the storm hit.

And the embassies contacted me – and said – “We have dozens of Czech/Slovak citizens in New Orleans, what do we do?”

“Beats me, I’m just a guy.”

“You don’t work for the university?”

“Nope.”

“You don’t work for the government?”

“Nope.”

“But your book?”

“Yes, well, I’m just of Czech heritage, and speak enough of the language.”

And so within a few hours I was the “temporary honorary consul of the Czech and Slovak Republics in Louisiana.” It happened so fast, I didn’t know what was happening. “We need your help,” they said. Who was I to refuse? So they told me the number of their citizens in need of assistance. “I don’t know what I can do,” I said. “Oh, just help them.” Sure, like I knew what to do. “Send them over – I can’t pick them up.” The next morning an armed Army Humvee was at the curb giving me 5 Czechs. “Ahoj” I said – which is Czech for “hello.” They were surprised, and pleased.

And he wasn’t even Czech — but from San Francisco — need I say more? But I helped him; he was a fellow American.

Anyway, I contacted Czech groups nationwide, and they said “What can we do?” “Well,” I replied – “I need someone to come and get these people, and take them in.” So they marshaled their forces and said “We’ll take them.” So good, I had a place to heave the people who started showing up at my house. So for three days before the storm I was giving reports every so many hours – and already I had people passing through my home – or like I said “Vitame Vas do muj domu” – Welcome to my home.

The day after the storm hit the two embassies put my contact information on their front pages and said “If you can make it to Hlavac’s, he’ll help you.” And I also got calls from the Czech and Slovak media – “We can’t find hotels, and we want to cover the story!” – So I said – “I got couches and floors – come on down.” And they did. And those stuck in New Orleans came to my house – a dozen people or more per day in my tiny 3 room house in downtown Baton Rouge. I put up a small sign on my front door – “Tady je Ceske a Slovanske Centrum v Louisiana – jestli nejsem tady, zeptat pro pomoc vedle na nakladelstvi obchody” – “here is the Czech and Slovak Center, if I’m not here, ask for help next door at the printers” I came home more than once to find some Czechs on my front porch wondering what it was all about. Then they took showers, and called their parents, and started to arrange the next stage in their lives.

I said “call your mothers.” They were young 20 somethings – “why?” – “because you mother is worried.” “Oh, how do they know?” they asked. “Well, I’m on Czech and Slovak radio – this is hardly a local story.”

Here’s a picture of some of them with me:

OK, so then the embassy asked me to do this or that, and contact this or that person – they asked me for quietude, I did not deny – they didn’t want the press involved.

But the press was – they were staying at my house from the 2nd day.

So with Jaroslav Richter of the CTK and I went to New Orleans five days after the storm hit. I was amazed. The military check points at the end of the debris ridden I-10 was amazing. He brandished his gun and said “halt, who goes there.” And Jaroslav showed his press pass – and the soldier asked me curtly – “Who are you?” “I’m his guide and translator, I live in Baton Rouge.” “Proceed” he said. And at each of the other military check points the same thing happened. There were five or six in all. Finally we were in New Orleans, and didn’t have a clue what to do. So I said “Let’s go visit my places – friend’s houses and businesses – so off we went.

Here’s a photo of me on Royal Street – usually crowded with people; this day empty.

Sure, they were all at the last bar still standing:

I was there on day five, six, seven, eight – with different Czech or Slovak media. So we went to where we could, and we went where I directed:

A bar I hang out in:

A house of a friend:

A house of another friend:

And across the street:

As close as we could get to a house of a friend:

And the size of the military vehicles – oh my:

That’s our vehicle in the lower right.

Along the whole way we saw debris just bulldozed over to the sides – nothing was cleaned up yet.

I met up with some FDNY –

And I saw downtown:

Weird the way the building next to it didn’t get damaged.

Then the sixth day I went to the OEM – the office of Emergency Management – and I never saw such a woefully unprepared bunch. The press room was tiny, and instead of the man-sized map that hangs in front of George’s, my local (don’t mention what type) bar, there was a slim copy of the La. Tourist Map – and I thought – Millions of bucks for an OEM and you don’t have a map? What idiots!

This was the day that Jesse Jackson would be speaking, with Kathleen Blanco, the Democratic Governor of the state, standing next to him. He gave some pabulum about “the forces of African- Americans who will come to rescue the city” – Alas, not only weren’t they there, but he admitted he could find no blacks willing to go back to the city. But he gave the pabulum of the “disaster of Bush.” – and when my Czech reporter (well, not “mine,”) he asked if Iraq spending was …. and General Honore was on his feet instantly – “we have been denied nothing.” And he kept going about the cooperation of the Bush administration . But he was also sure that it was not a Democrat or Republican thing – but that it was the nature of New Orleans.

 

At least a dozen of my friends – gay all – had to be removed by gun point – because there were going to stick it out. And when I inquired of the military I met up with, “What happened to the guy who lived there?” “Yes, well, he was an ornery bastard, but we pried him out.” “And then what?” They didn’t know; but I found out later that my friends were scattered from Albuquerque to South Carolina, but all eventually made their way to an old plantation house in Mississippi, where they lived until it was safe to go back to NOLA.

 

And the NBC reporter wondered why the distressed hadn’t been evacuated to the Northeast – and Honore jumped in and said: “The twin spans of the I-10 bridge are gone, as are any facilities in Mississippi.” And then the CBS “reporter” – in a pink angora pussy fuzzy sweater began badgering General Honore – “what about the riots in downtown?” Only, I had just come from downtown and there was no rioting whatsoever. But she kept insisting – and Honore kept his cool, and said “Please provide some proof” to which she answered “I heard…” and he didn’t say much – and I was fuming: I thought: “Lady, get in a friggin’ car and drive three or four miles downtown to see what is going on.” After all, the OEM was on Government Street, and so was the shelter with the “heathens.”

It was the largest, most smoothly run evacuation of any city on earth, ever. .And people blame a guy who ran a bureaucracy, FEMA, which can’t act until three days after the disaster? Disgusting.

No, actually, everyone did what they could, and it was so amazing to evacuate 1.5 million people on a moment’s notice – over four bridges – three of which were completely unusable after the storm – for New Orleans is an Island – and by bridge only will you access it – and the press had no data, and the OEM provided none – – but all politics and upstaging the other.

And you know what the saddest despicable part was? This:

Look at this media poufter – all pretty – yes, pretty, and blond, and in boots – and his camera man on dry land, as he gave a report about the “flooding everywhere” in New Orleans. This was in front of the FreeportMcMoran building – in water no higher than any rainstorm brings New Orleans in this area – there standing like a prick.

How the “news” is “made” eh?

And I harassed him. And his camera man gave me dirty looks and told me “shush” – where have I heard that before? And I said “Look at all these people working; not the disaster.” But he would not heed my words.

And that’s my take on Katrina. The media were idiots, American, and alas, Czech, too.

Oh yah, one more weird thing — despite media reports to contrary, New Orleans was not destroyed because of gays or any festival – -here, look, our flags were still there, five days after a horrific storm:

And the photo of me on Royal went round the world, and the photo of Rampart Street went around my other world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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