View From the 9th Ward


My December column about misleading news coverage of Hurricane Katrina-related rumors keeps producing an interesting trickle of e-mails from people who had boots on the ground. Here's one:

My name is Dwayne Felty. I just finished reading your article "They shoot helicopters don't they?" I thought this was a really good article. I am a union electrician from Herrin Illinois. About 1 week after hurricane Katrina several partners and myself traveled to Gulfport Mississippi to help in the reconstruction effort. We spent several weeks in Gulfport when we started getting word that they were needing electricians in New Orleans. But as your article talked about, we were kind of scared to go because of all the unbelievable rumors that were coming out of the city.

We heard stories that there was some kind of research laboratory in the city in which some kind virus had gotten loose and was infecting people, and the medical community was trying to keep it quiet. To another story that I really don't know if was a rumor or not. It involved the private security firm [name omitted]. We were told by several residents that [name omitted] was one of the law enforcement groups responsible for doing evacuation of 9th ward residents who had refused to leave their homes after the storm. We were told that they had been given orders to bring out no wounded, if these residents absolutely refused to leave they were given permission to use whatever force they felt necessary, and that they were drowning people that refused to leave their homes.

Despite these stories we decided to travel to New Orleans anyway. We went to work under contract of the city of New Orleans Sewage and Water Board. Our job was to completely rewire pump station #5 which was directly across the street from the London Ave. Canal levee breach in the lower 9th ward. For the next two months I spent 12-15 hours a day, 7 days a week in that ravaged neighborhood. Besides military and rescue personnel, we were one of the first crews allowed in that neighborhood.

Unlike the rumors that we had been hearing which we had no idea if they were true or not, I witnessed horrors in that neighborhood with my own eyes that I know for fact are not rumors, and this is kinda the reason that I decided to write you, to share with you some of my experiences. […]

[A]fter witnessing some of the things I saw, I feel like I have a responsibility to tell my story to everyone I can.

The one thing that haunts me the most is that when they finally started door to door search and rescue they would spray paint the front of the building, and it would contain the date of the search, who performed the search, how many were found dead, and how many were found living. As you probably know the flood waters came in on August 29-30. I can't even begin to count how many homes that we saw that were not checked for survivors for the first time until the 24-26 of September. I would just like to know why it took almost a month to check these homes for survivors? There were people who starved to death because they could not escape their attics, and the resources were there to help them. THEY LET PEOPLE DIE!

Up until the day that I left to return home, they were finding bodies on a daily basis. One day in particular they found a family of 10 dead in the attic of their home. On another occasion I ran into a camera crew from NBC. They were being escorted by two New Orleans police officers. As I talked to them I told them that they needed to come down to [the] 9th ward because no one was showing the things that we were seeing on TV. They told me that they had been trying to get into that neighborhood but were not allowed past the military checkpoints. As I talked to these people one of the police officers rudely interrupted me and as he chuckled he asked me "So, how many niggers you seen floating down there? Those people got exactly what they deserved! That place should have been leveled years ago!" I couldn't believe what I had just heard, I just turned around and walked away. […]

Like I said, I just want to tell my stories—and I have plenty more—to as many people that will listen. […]

Dwayne Felty

I've done some light copy editing to the letter.