September 12, 2005

Katrina Survivor Shares His Story

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Rami Chami is a former editor at the Indiana Daily Student and was one of many to take refuge from Hurricane Katrina in the Superdome. He graduated from Indiana University in August and was to begin his graduate studies at Tulane University this month. He began classes at Cornell last week.

I graduated from Indiana University in August and moved to New Orleans to start a graduate program at Tulane University four days before Hurricane Katrina struck. I arrived on a Thursday afternoon and was staying at a hostel on Canal Street where the guests were mostly European and Australian backpackers. Immediately after arriving, I was very busy searching for an apartment, taking care of university paper work, and getting settled into the city affectionately known as the Big Easy.

Campus was abuzz with orientation activity, and in one of my classes that had yet to meet, we had been issued an assignment that was due the following week. Life and services in the city were in full swing. Friday evening, about 36 hours before I headed to the Superdome, the bars and cabarets of raunchy Bourbon Street were packed with tourists, live performing musicians, and sliver-painted mimes. The French Quarter, famous for its intricately decorated balconies, had refused to give up its festive cheer, and the popular drink special advertised everywhere was a drink called the Hurricane.

I now hear in the media that local officials had ordered a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans on the Thursday I arrived in the city, but until Sunday I personally had only heard of a voluntary evacuation order. Saturday afternoon, I opened a bank account at a normal operating Chase branch office. I may have been, and probably was, ill-informed, but I took the normality of the city and the fact that Tulane University only postponed classes by one day as an indication that riding out the hurricane would be a manageable experience.

The small hostel I was staying at initially said they would stay open and allow guests to remain there during the hurricane, but they later informed us Sunday morning that we would have to seek shelter at the Superdome. Under a peaceful blue sky and bright sun I walked with a couple of other people from the hostel to a nearby school from where the city began busing people to the Superdome at noon.

Upon arriving at the dome, we queued in a four hour line to get inside the imposing stadium in the heart of downtown. People around me eyeing the immense stadium expressed relief and noted that it would undoubtedly withstand the hurricane. Before entering the building we were thoroughly searched and frisked by National Guardsmen looking for alcohol and weapons.

There were no civilian government officials inside or around the Superdome. The facility was entirely manned by the military, primarily members of the National Guard.

Inside the Superdome we were directed to seats on the first level of the stadium, and the military would only open up an adjacent cluster of seats when the preceding cluster was filled with people. By evening the clouds ahead of the hurricane began to rain, and the majority of people who would begin their stay at the dome had hunkered down in the gargantuan stadium. With two massive unoccupied seating levels above us and the first level of the stadium not even filled up, the building seemed somewhat empty to me.

The first and only address over the public address system was given that evening by an official from the Superdome and a high ranking military officer. They welcomed us to the Superdome, thanked the New Orleans Saints and the National Guard, and explained that food and water would be handed out daily. They informed us that by the next morning the electrical power would be cut and we would be running on generator power with dimmer lights and no ventilation. The brief address was ended with a request that we be patient with the officials and one another.

It was after midnight by now, and I realized that sleeping upright in a stadium seat was going to be neither easy nor comfortable. You could not stretch out across the seats because of the metal armrests between each of the chairs. Space on the floor between the rows of the seats was limited in the small section of the stadium to which we were restricted. The football field before us, which would have been ideal to lay down on was empty but off bounds. The field was manned by National Guardsmen who would not allow people on it. I was told by those around me that it was a multi-million dollar field which the stadium management did not want ruined.

I managed to sleep five hours before Katrina descended upon New Orleans, but little did I realize that by the next morning a rapid series of events would turn my stay in the Big Easy onto a very slippery downward spiral and open a fascinating window into the human condition under intense strain. I was about to get a very intimate look at misery, fear, racism, poverty and intimidation. I would also come to witness some of the ineptness of the government’s response, and the bravery and selfless compassion of others.

Archived article by Rami Chami
Special to The Sun