The Scene in Louisiana: Getting Out, Staying Safe

Mike Pesca reports from Louisiana on the experience of evacuees from New Orleans and the efforts to get them to safety.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick,

Coming up, why marriage is a choice that poor people forgo more often than the rich do.

First this: Cities outside New Orleans are inundated with evacuees. NPR's Mike Pesca is in that region, talking to those who are fleeing the flood and local residents trying to cope with this crisis.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Ground zero, though now a proper name, does aptly describe the situation in Louisiana. Ground zero means a central point from which all problems radiate. The further west you get from New Orleans, the better things get. A hundred twenty-five miles to the west in Lafayette, things are fine: open stores, gas stations, potable water. But there are evacuees from New Orleans. One is Robin Parker, who arrived in Lafayette at 6:00 last night.

Ms. ROBIN PARKER (New Orleans Evacuee): Like a horror story. We decided to leave 11:00 this morning. We've been driving since 11:30 this morning. It's like a bad dream.

PESCA: So you were flooded how high in your home?

Ms. PARKER: Twenty feet.

PESCA: Parker's story is now common--or would be except for one detail. Her traveling companion isn't a civilian. She's a uniformed New Orleans city employee who should be a first responder to the emergency there. Instead, she took her sick daughter out of town in a clearly marked city-owned vehicle. The situation, she says, got too intense. The woman says she knows of about 30 city police officers who were so distraught by the horrors they saw that they resigned. We could not confirm this. But judging from the comments on Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans needs all the help it can get.

Governor KATHLEEN BLANCO (Louisiana): This is not a time or a place for any of that behavior, and I am just furious. This is intolerance.

PESCA: The drive east from Lafayette toward New Orleans does not reveal too much hurricane damage for about 40 miles, but if you're listening to the car radio, hints of what drove Robin Parker and her friend out of the city can be heard. An official from Jefferson Parish, which contains the area between downtown and the New Orleans airport, talks to the host of a radio station which has switched to rolling coverage of the aftermath.

Unidentified Man #1: We're at a point now where things are really starting to get out of hand, and we need some assistance. You have...

Unidentified Man #2: Are you saying this--you say things are starting to get out of hand. As a resident who owns a house in Jefferson Parish, does that mean to me that I should be worried now that my home has been or may be looted?

Unidentified Man #1: That's possible.

Unidentified Man #2: As a business owner, should I be concerned my home--my business has been or may be--have been looted?

Unidentified Man #1: Absolutely.

PESCA: But near Houma, a city about 30 miles to the south and west of New Orleans, you remember who you're rooting for in this man vs. nature epic. At 5 PM yesterday the area finally regained power. This caused a run on the gas station. But here at the BP station in Gray, Louisiana, Jerry Clark(ph) is in the parking lot directing traffic, telling people how long the wait is, which pump isn't accepting credit cards. He doesn't work here, and you get the sense that without him, what is now an oasis would be a madhouse.

Mr. JERRY CLARK: These people have a bad situation that's been going on here. And they've been operating without electricity and things like that. And now they got the pumps back up, we just trying to get in there where these people can get some gas.

PESCA: And when you got here, what did it look like? Describe it.

Mr. CLARK: Oh, it was bad. They were backed up down the road and it was kind of a little bit of mass confusion and all that. And we got it rolling pretty good now.

PESCA: Clark's organizing skill allows Kenny Fisher(ph) to fill up as quickly as possible and get back to the many people relying on him at home.

Mr. KENNY FISHER: My neighbor, she used to live in Buras next door. They're at my house right now. They lost their whole house. The house and the house that I sold are all gone. They're all in the river now. And they're going to stay with us till they get something done, so--and my daughter and them's coming back from Texas right now. Their power's still out in Thibodaux, so--and I got aunts and--my niece's trailer in--over on CoTo Trailer Park(ph) got tore up. A tree fell on one of them. So they're just all staying on me and...

PESCA: Further on down the road, down the bayou, as they say, almost due south of New Orleans is Bayou La Foosh(ph), right on the Gulf of Mexico. There is no power in these communities, and every third utility pole or so is teetering on its moorings. The town is dark, but on the water the lights are on and people are living on their boats powered by generators.

(Soundbite of generator)

PESCA: Mark Berg(ph), Ronnie Thibodieux(ph) and their families are living on the houseboat near Galiano, Louisiana. Thibodieux says that many generations of his family braved hurricanes. They never left the bayou. But they didn't face the intensity of modern hurricanes. He blames the erosion of marsh and land that once served as a buffer. These days when he goes out on his boat, his GPS system, which is five years old, often tells him that there's an island or land mass up ahead, but the eye sees just water. It's a sensation the whole area is now getting used to. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Lafayette, Louisiana.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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