No “Home Sweet Home” Five Years After Katrina

Matt Pascarella and I encountered Patricia Thomas while she was breaking into a home at the Lafitte Housing Project in New Orleans. It was her own home. Nevertheless, if caught, she’d end up in the slammer. So would we. Matt was my producer for the film, Big Easy to Big Empty, and he encouraged my worst habits. I’d worked for the New Orleans Housing Authority years back and knew they wanted the poor black folk out of these pretty townhouses near the French Quarter. Katrina was an excuse for ethnic cleansing, American style. Matt and I skipped cuffs on this shoot, but were charged later by Homeland Security (see below). While I recorded the story of hidden evils on film, Matt gathered a story which no camera can capture. Here it is. — Greg Palast


Matt Pascarella writes:
Four years ago, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I sat with Patricia Thomas. Greg Palast and I had just helped her break into her home in the Lafitte Projects. She had been locked out for a year. She showed us her former home, her belongings scattered everywhere, and wrestled out endless stories of post-Katrina life: how she struggled to find shelter over the last year, how they came and put bars on her doors and windows and locked her out, how it was “man made.”

I picked up a photo of her at Mardi Gras, taken a few years earlier, and compared it to what she looked like now. In the picture her hair was longer, her face younger, her smile deeper. Now her arms were wasted and thin, her eyes sunken into her face, and her bottom front teeth were gone. On most days, she told me, she wore her dead mother’s dentures, but today she had forgotten to put them in. Her own teeth broke off when escaping the rising waters. She had fallen face first onto the concrete slab that was her front porch. The very spot where we were sitting was where it had happened. Over my left shoulder, running the length of the building, was a scar, a stain from the water line.

August in Louisiana is unbearably hot for a Northern boy. Beads of sweat poured from my face, down my neck. Patricia went inside, found an old roll of paper towels in a kitchen cabinet and brought me one. The quilted paper had a kitschy design — a giant heart with words that said, “Home Sweet Home.”

I looked at her and wondered how this could happen in my country.

A few weeks before, I was in Mexico City with Palast covering the Presidential Election. A presidency had been stolen. People were on the streets screaming “Vota por Vota, Casilla por Casilla!” Count the votes! “Vote by Vote, box by box!” I had seen the aftermath of a massacre in a small village outside Mexico City. I had seen people from all over the country rise up in anger taking to the streets. I had seen the Zapatistas march and Subcomandante Marcos himself flanked by young women acting as a protective barrier. I had seen the house where Trotsky was stabbed in the back of the head with an ice pick.

When I finally left Mexico City, I remember being deeply confused. The kind of confusion that tears at the soul and has the ability to completely dismantle any preconceived notions of how to view the world. I was inspired to see so many people fighting for democracy, and yet a deep depression sunk in as the plane took off. I knew their efforts would not matter. I had seen the American ‘consultants’, the DC hacks, in the offices of the ruling party and I knew it was over.

Now, here I was — back home in the United States — outside a decimated house near the levees, trying to understand why a New Orleans native, Brod Bagert, was calling a friend who worked with the fire department. Brod was asking his old friend what the number “5” below the giant orange spray-painted X on the front of the house meant. But Brod already knew what it meant.

Here I was watching Brod, one year later, trying to convince himself that what had happened to his neighbors didn’t actually happen. After many long days of hearing countless horrifying stories and walking through miles of destruction, I now stood next to a grown man who was desperately trying to lie to himself simply because the alternative was too painful. I couldn’t hold back the tears. It was the first, and only, time in my professional life that I had to walk away from an interview. I hid out behind a smashed up, rotted out BMW and cried.

After a few minutes I returned to Brod. He hung up the phone, looked at Palast and me, and slowly choked, “Five people died here.”

He finally gave in to what had happened here: the sprayed “9-16″ above that X meant that those five bodies had been left to decompose for nearly 19 days before being discovered by rescue crews.

Brod rubbed his eyes and we went inside the house. His fathomless sadness hardened into anger. We walked through a sand dune littered with toys into what was once the living room. I tried not to imagine the mom and dad and kids as water crushed them against the ceiling; as they clawed for one more breath.

Brod took us down the street to his home, that is, the sticks that were left of his home. He was breathing hard, he was shaking. “Old ladies watched the water come up to their nose, over their eyes and they drowned in houses just like this, in this neighborhood, because of reckless negligence that is unanswered for.”

I think back now, to those words, spoken four years ago and wonder if it will ever be answered.

We then met Stephen Smith. He worked at the Marriott hotel, but had no car and no way to get out when the Mayor said to get out. Stephen pulled a dozen neighbors to a bridge over the rising water for four days as helicopters whirled overhead. Four days in the humid sun. No food. An old man gave his grandchildren his only bottle of water; then the old man died of dehydration. Stephen now works in a grocery store in Houston where FEMA ultimately dumped him. His kids live in Baton Rouge.

The next day Palast and I drove up to Baton Rouge to confront the company that was contracted to come up with an evacuation plan for the City of New Orleans. They had refused all of our interview requests, so we showed up at their offices to request a copy of the plan in person. We were quickly thrown out, they threatened to call security. They knew what we knew: There was no plan.

We drove out to the town of Baker. There, we surreptitiously passed through a security checkpoint before funneling into a massive FEMA trailer park. Here we met Pamela Lewis who told us her story of escaping the flood. Despite having MS, she pushed a boat with her 86-year-old mother, other relatives and neighbors through the streets of New Orleans. When she got to a bridge, armed men yelled at her, called her a nigger, and commanded her to turn around. They didn’t want a boat full of black people coming into their neighborhood. She then managed to make it to the Superdome where she was sprayed down by hoses, tossed on a bus, and then told to pay a fare and get off. She had no idea where she was.

We finished filming. Pamela stood in front of the car next to her trailer, and I locked eyes with her. I put the car in reverse and backed out, leaving her there, alone, not knowing what she was going to do with her life.

We drove back to New Orleans, passing an Exxon Oil Refinery — the only thing near Pamela’s trailer park. Several weeks later, at the request of Exxon, Homeland Security would file a criminal complaint against me and Palast under the anti-terrorism PATRIOT Act for filming “critical infrastructure.” The only thing critical about that refinery was the pollution it was spewing near what had become a refugee camp.

Five years have gone by and it is rare if a week passes that I don’t think of New Orleans. Nearly two thousand people lost their lives. An entire city was decimated. People were killed by the very police officers who were supposed to be protecting them. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. To this day there are some still living in FEMA trailers. Patricia died a few years back in a horrible car accident; Lafitte, her home, has since been demolished.

My job was to go, to report, and then go home. My job was to leave Patricia, Pamela, Brod and countless others whom I had encountered, behind — to place them in a compartment in my mind, and to move on to the next story. Yet I never quite managed to do that with New Orleans. Maybe it was easier for me to cope in places like Mexico, but New Orleans was America. It happened in my country. All of the people I met in New Orleans — their images, their words — have, over the years, crystallized into a vivid sense of disenchantment with the romantic narrative of America I was taught as a child.

I sit here now, thumb through my old notebook that is labeled in black marker “NOLA” and find the paper towel Patricia gave me. It still reads, next to that big, faded heart, “Home Sweet Home.”

*********

Matt Pascarella produced the Greg Palast investigation, Big Easy to Big Empty: The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans.

Pascarella is currently a journalist with the Palast Investigative Fund which is offering the film as download FREE of charge during this week of commemoration. Or, for a donation, receive the DVD signed by Palast.

The Palast Fund requests your tax-deductible donations. We are returning to New Orleans to finish the investigation we started.

This article cross-posted from www.GregPalast.com

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  • dddjjj

    I just tried to post this on facebook and it is “marked as spam”

    WTF

    • dddjjj

      false alarm just bad scripting

  • Your Mom

    Boo hoo, buncha lazy people are still lazy, still waiting for a gub'mint handout, still refusing to fix their own problems.

    Katrina was five years ago? People can earn college degrees in less time. Instead, they sit around in trailer parks waiting for Messiah Obama to turn water into wine.

    • John Brown

      Your flagrant stupidity and barely disguised bigotry is astounding. Go back to the Stormfront website you slithered out from.

    • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

      Actually, in point of fact, if they could just get the 'free market' forces in local government to stop confiscating and destroying the homes they used to own because local real estate moguls want to buy it all up from the city extra cheap and transform it into a ritzy suburb that no one can afford to move into…they'd probably have been home and back to their lives 4 years ago. It's a two party problem that no one has fixed…because developer money talks…and politicians, both the D and R varieties, will listen to the $$ when they speak.

      I'm not sure where you stand on the excessive powers of government anymore…since apparently when the people involved are poor…its suddenly ok to steal their property and refuse to compensate them properly.

    • GoodDoktorBad

      When are you going to fix your problem -vile creature?

      Hose down your shit-encrusted heart…..

    • Andrew

      It's beyond me why anyone would assume you're a racist.

    • Hypnos1

      You fucking apologist. Its “thinking” people like you with no compassion or knowledge of the wider world that allow atrocities to happen. Courageous people stood up against things like slavery in america, the holocaust, genocides across the planet. But its small minded, fear motivated assholes like you who toe the line of the monstrous rulers who engineer these horrors, all the while cheering them on and trying to convince the rest of us that “hey, at least its not happening to us” or maybe “but they deserved it”. Now watch as people who share your corrupt line of thinking start attacking Muslims across the country.

    • Haystack

      And what are they gonna pay for college with? The rubble of their former homes?

    • 5by5

      You're a douche.

  • GoodDoktorBad

    How often do you hear news about the status of New Orleans? These kind of stories rarely get heard. Journalism out of that area of the country -who reads it? My point is mainstream media barely covers it.
    What has been covered seems more like the “embedded journalist” situation we have in our wonderful wars….The same is true about the BP oil spill coverage. Reason exchanged for homogenization of “facts”.
    Like Iraq and Afghanistan, is it just too depressing a picture to depict in depth? Or, like war, are “natural” disasters just a great time for the vultures that were circling to swoop down and devour the feast they had so long had their eye on?

    • myth_slayer

      “My point is mainstream media barely covers it.”

      Well, a Japanese politician-type recently called Americans simple minded. Can't disagree, although while I haven't had an intelligent conversation with an American in over 20 years, I certainly haven't had any intelligent discourse with any Japanese in several decades as well.

      The point being, 100% of the PopCultureNonNewsMedia in America is controlled by just two sociopathic billionaires: Peter G. Peterson and David Koch.

      Now, if one mentioned either of those names to any American, 99% wouldn't know either of them!

      And that's just how bad it is today….

    • Haystack

      Its possible that we're just looking at different media outlets, but I feel like its been covered to death. There's even a post-Katrina TV series. Of course, mining it for stories is different from actually doing something about it.

    • Tuna Ghost

      Like Haystack says, the coverage depends on what outlet one uses, but in both cases (coverage or no) it places the problem securely “somewhere else” and in someone elses hands. Human misery can sell almost as well as sex, but it has to be presented in a form where the viewer doesn't feel threatened or moved to actually make changes. Sometimes that means a movie-of-the-week, and sometimes that means zero coverage.

    • 5by5

      It cracks me up to hear the news media blither about how supposedly “Americans have a short attention span,” while they simultaneously contribute to that short attention span with short attention spans of their own — unable to every really focus-in or drill down into a subject to get at the heart of the matter, or only exploiting it while “it's the new thing” then aggressively ignoring the aftermath, because there's no sexy blood or dying going on that they can film.

      Well NEWSFLASH: people are STILL dying from Katrina. All the poisons in that water, all the stress, all the emotional pain — that shit still kills people. It's like a slow-moving horror, made all the more horrible because it goes largely ignored, or worse, callously dismissed by dimwits like YouMom and Lifeguard, who have a compassion deficit and give a bad name to any Conservative out there.

      • Haystack

        Or the governor of their own state, who refused stimulus money for the sake of anti-Obama political posturing.

  • Lifeguard

    “hep us” those pathetic adult children that did not heed Mayor Nagin's offerings of bus rides out…

    • 5by5

      Seriously? After all these years you're still buying that red herring launched by Sean Hannity? Most of the bus drivers had already left New Orleans, and there weren't enough of them to carry al those people out anyways. Don't you DARE go off blaming poor people for the “crime” of not having a car. I'm a middle class white person, but like most people who live in major cites, I didn't own a car for MANY years. Had something like this hit Seattle or New York, or even Washington D.C., people in those cities would have been in the same exact position as these folks. The problem was the ineffectual Federal response, which was tantamount to democide. They up and LET those people die, because it was brown people dying. That's the plain truth of it. Suck on it.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MG5OLC6CWV4O72H63G5WHOSORM Dwayne

        Ridiculous, and wrong.

      • Haystack

        Even then…getting a ride out doesn't prevent your house from being destroyed.

        You could drop an A-bomb on a city, and people like that will still complain that the lazy jobless people who survived.

  • Haystack

    Or the governor of their own state, who refused stimulus money for the sake of anti-Obama political posturing.

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