Weathering the Flood at the Superdome
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
All this week NPR producer Anne Hawke has been in New Orleans. We've heard her work in reports about obliterated houses, stranded people and separated families. She sends us this essay today and says it shows a theme that she's seen again and again this week, chaos and misplaced priorities.
When I opened this morning's local paper I was speechless. There was a huge photograph on Page 1. It showed a woman lying on the ground, head cocked back, eyes closed. Here's what the caption said `A gravely ill Hurricane Katrina refugee is tended to Thursday outside the Superdome. A state trooper came to her aid, but she died a short time later.' I was sitting with a reporter. He said it must be the woman we saw yesterday.
Yesterday we were at the Superdome looking for an official to interview. We stood near a pen of thousands of evacuees who were waiting to board buses, and a woman was stretched out nearby on the ground. I could literally see the life draining out of her. I turned to my colleague, said, `John, she's dying.' A young man and woman hunched over her, distraught, trying to pour water into her mouth, but it rolled off the sides. I walked up to Sandra Johnson(ph). That was her sister, Kendra(ph), on the ground. Kendra is 20.
Ms. SANDRA JOHNSON (Hurricane Victim): My sister had an asthma attack, then she passed out. It's like they ain't trying to do nothin' for her.
HAWKE: Kendra Johnson looked like she was about to die, but in the Superdome chaos a dying woman didn't seem like an emergency. Less than five feet away was a line of about a dozen National Guardsmen focused on their mission, keeping throngs of desperate people from becoming unruly. We asked a National Guardsman if anyone was going to help this woman. He stammered, paused then said, `Yes, let me check on that.'
Unidentified Man: Let's go get Big Boy, and then it's time to go.
HAWKE: The family was mobilizing, but it was 10 or 15 minutes before people in uniform lifted this woman out for help. There have been other days in this stadium, I imagine, when asthma attacks gave rise to urgent calls for help--racing stretchers, paramedics, sirens--but at this surreal scene in the Superdome yesterday, one of many I've witnessed this week, I realized we've lost perspective. In the pandemonium of moving people out of New Orleans, getting them on buses somehow took priority over keeping them alive.
SIEGEL: NPR's Anne Hawke. Today she's in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.