CNN correspondent Udoji arrived in New Orleans on August 28, just before the storm and stayed nearly two weeks, through the chaos, until September 9. She said she has seen suffering in the Middle East, in Baghdad, in Afghan refugee camps and in West Africa, but nothing prepared her for the misery she saw after Hurricane Katrina. Udoji took a week off and returned to New Orleans to report on Hurricane Rita. This is the third of her three eyewitness reports.
“Why should I leave?” Lucien Von Terra asked me again and again.
“My people was born here. I fought in World War II; I can survive any hurricane,” he said looking me straight in the eye.
We met him camped out in a parking lot at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, a hundred yards from the main terminal. Eighty-something years old, he had been chased out of his house by the blackened floodwaters. He said his family had lived in New Orleans for generations.
Dressed in wrinkled black pants with suspenders over a dirty, white sleeveless T-shirt, he looked sunburnt and tired by the long, endless hours, cut off from radio, television, and newspapers.
He was quick to tell us he had a job driving cars for an airport car-rental agency. He made sure to tell us he didn’t want to burden his children, a son and a daughter who fled before Katrina hit. “They’re grown,” he said, raising his voice. “Leave and go where?” He never mentioned a wife or other family.
Disgust seem to drive him, disgust at the notion that a storm, no matter how disastrous, would chase him out of the city he’s fought for. He has seen death and destruction and lived to talk about it. He had no way of knowing that Katrina was not just another hurricane; she will leave misery behind for years to come.
He lost everything. Racing out of his home, he couldn’t save family pictures or war mementos or family gifts. All he could grab was his insulin.
Like so many hundreds of Katrina victims, Von Terra suffers from diabetes. Without food and water, he was withering in the burning sun. He was walking slowly with a more pronounced limp by the fourth day after we met. And I noticed that he stopped more often, for longer rests.
“Some of the city’s older residents can’t stomach the idea of leaving their entire lives behind,” said one New Orleans paramedic who was delivering evacuees to the airport, which had become a 24-hour field hospital. “It’s almost as if they think staying means the storm’s not that bad after all.” He said it was a constant battle to get the elderly, with their long, entrenched roots, to leave their homes.
And then there’s the suspicion.
In some neighborhoods, paramedic said residents have no faith in authorities. So, when rescue workers showed up, many dug their heels in harder. They didn’t trust the rescue workers and didn’t understand the new reality wrought by the storm.
Von Terra reminded me of another senior, Ms. June. A tiny woman in her 60s, she had been pulled out of her waterlogged home clutching a Bible. She told me she hadn’t wanted to leave the comfort of her grandmamma’s house, surrounded by decades of memories. Even trapped in her attic, she felt safe. But her friends begged and pleaded and she finally gave in to rescuers. Safe on land, she praised God.
Von Terra reached out to the doctors and nurses working around the clock. They gave him water and food to keep his body going. He already had the will to live.
Adaora Udoji is a CNN correspondent based in New York. She was formerly a foreign correspondent covering the Afghan and Iraq wars, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
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