By Pat Dooris
I travelled to New Orleans with the Oregon National guard days after the city flooded.
We gathered at the Portland Airbase very early one morning. The medics briefed us on all the bad bugs that could make us very sick or kill us in New Orleans. They painted a picture of contaminated water, raw sewage in the streets, millions of mosquitos ready to infect any of us with who knows how many nasty diseases. And oh yes, lawless gangs roaming the area with guns.
The Guard's mission involved the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods with the most destruction. They were charged with bringing order to the area, protecting property and ending chaos.
We flew down on a KC 135 cargo jet. The soldiers were fully armrored up, including their heavy anti ballistic vests. They also carried rifles and pistols and helmets. If it came to fighting gangs trying to control neighborhoods, there would be no question who the professionals were----the cavalry was on the way.
We sat in canvas chairs slung along the sides of the massive jet. In the middle, crate upon crate upon crate of food and water and ammo were stacked four to five feet high and strapped down with chains and thick straps.
The jet had few if any windows. We humans were simply more cargo. I remember the obstacle course of legs and helmets as I tried weaving my way along the crates to the front of the plane to use the bathroom in flight.
Halfway through the flight the soldiers passed down MRE meals----meals ready to eat. They cautioned NOT to use the heating chemicals inside the bag---it could cause an explosion on the plane.
I ate what ever was inside cold, just like the guys around me. I forget what it was but it filled us up.
When we landed in New Orleans we walked out into blinding bright sunlight and a contant thump, thump from huge helicopters landing and taking off, along with the roar of big transport jets coming and going.
We were at the naval base in New Orleans---the central gathering place for military streaming in from around the country.
We "fell in" to hear someone shout directions. I tried to hide my smile. It seemed a bit silly. The person in front talked to the group as if we could hear him. Which we could not. Ever been there? Someone trying to tell you something with a roar in the background loud enough to ---well---to equal several jets and helicopters landing and taking off.
Eventually, it became clear the instructions were about unloading the plane.
We lined up in a long row and passed helmets and backpacks from one to the other until the entire plane was unloaded. In the sweltering sun I was quickly drenched with sweat.
That night, most of the Oregon soldiers joined hundreds of others sleeping along the edge of the tarmac at the airport.
Major Arnold Strong decided he wanted to get to the action---and commandered a bus to get us into the city.
I'll never forget that first night.
We arrived at school, I think it was the Performing Arts school in the lower ninth ward.
A sergeant who arrived the day before greeted us and gave us the ground rules. We were to assume we were living in the wild, wild west. They did not know who was "out there" or whether they'd be friendly or not. We were told if we needed to use the bathroom, we should go off the school grounds---but be sure to take soldier. They didnt want any of us getting shot by bad guys.
The sergeant also informed us there was no electricity, no running water, no toilets.
If we needed a bowel movement, we were told, we should go into black garbage bags held out by the sergeant.
Double bag them when you are done, we were told---then toss them in a pile.
Oh geez---- this could be a long assignment.
The next morning, special forces teams went out 'requisitioning" port-a-potties. They came back with three or four and were the camp hereos.
I remember riding along with Oregon soldiers as they surveyed their patrol area. It included a Winn Dixie which had the metal doors in front rammed in. It left the store wide open to looters. I'm sure some people grabbed food and water they needed to survive while waiting for help. But others cleaned out all the cigarettes and most of the booze.
Without electricity, the meat quickly rotted in the store. The stench was incredible.
Across the street a man's body lay under a blanket. He'd been shot four days before, we were told, in an argument over gasoline. His black dog sat nearby, waiting for the man to wake up, I guess.
He had a neatly organized box sitting on a bench by the gasoline pumps. It held a couple bottles of beer---still unopened.
Down the street a convience store also had its front door bashed in---the store looted inside. An A-T-M machine sat oddly on its side in the parking lot. Someone had ripped it out of the store and forced their way into its cash box, which was now empty.
That night the Oregon soldiers moved to a deserted convent not far from the Performing Arts school.
I convinced a nurse to let photog Scott Williams and I sleep on cots in a ground level room that housed the unit's medicines. They brought in big fans run by generators to keep the medicine cool. The temperature in the room was at least twenty degrees colder than outside where the soldiers slept.
I fell alseep quite pleased with myself.
At 3 AM I woke feeling very different. The generators ran out of gas. I woke up every half hour until dawn, sweating.
Each day the sun blasted down on us, the temperature hit 80 degrees by 10am. Humidity wrapped around us like a wet blanket.
Helicopters constantly hovered just over head with a loud, constant clap of their blades.
Dogs ran in the street---looking hungry and scared. The soldiers tried to shoo them away from the convent---the dogs hung back for awhile then moved on.
The entire experience was weird---working in a major city with no one around other than police and soldiers and journalists--and the occassional resident.
Everything was dirty. We were told to constantly wash our hands and keep them out of our mouths. Everyone assumed the ground had been covered with sewage. No one knew when disease would break out.
In spite of all that---I remember sitting in the grass of the convent---and noticing red fire ants working their way through the grass. How could that be? How could they survive being under such nasty water?
Its one of the many strange --- but compelling memories I have of my time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.