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 first of her three eyewitness reports.
Thirty thousand seconds.
That’s the approximate time that life swung from calm to chaos in New Orleans. On Monday, August 29, everyone-mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, doctors and nurses, everyday folks-thought they’d beaten Hurricane Katrina.
But by eight p.m., just as the sun set, the floodwater from Lake Pontchartrain rushed into the city. Homes were washed away, families left in tatters.
No one could stop the mighty waters. New Orleans resident Lonnie Hammond, a six-foot-one, 50-something-year-old truck driver, said the gush was so ferocious that by the time he walked from his porch to the bedroom to grab his wallet, the debris-filled water had risen to his waist. There had been just enough time for Hammond and his adult son to get to a neighbor’s third-floor attic. Like thousands of others, they were plunged into darkness.
All they could hear were their neighbor’s screaming. Loud. Bellowing. Pleading for help.
Their Elyssian Fields neighborhood was under 10 to 15 feet of water and mostly eerily quiet. Hour after hour, many residents like Hammond sought relief. Some clawed their way out of attics with axes and wrenches. Lisa Smith, a tall, proud woman, was one of thousands of dry-throated mothers who clutched their children-tiny infants wearing only a diaper that would have to do for days-and waited for help, eventually running out of hope. After waiting hours in the blazing sun, Smith just cried. With tears streaming, she screamed, “I have no baby formula, no milk for my baby. What am I suppose to do?”
Draped in wet, two-day-old clothes, I watched them, clutching their pets or anything they could grab. There were women without purses-they had no time to get them-marching silently out of the foul floodwater up the Interstate 10 ramp searching for signs of help to deliver them from this catastrophe.
But there was no relief. Still they waited. And waited. And waited. They waited for buses to take them somewhere, anywhere other than these spots under an unforgiving sun. Buses to the Superdome’s unraveling evacuation center stopped coming. The lines got longer; people got hotter. Tempers fueled by fear and anger began to boil. Without water to quench their thirst, their hands, feet, tongues and hearts swelled. They cursed politicians like Mayor Ray Nagin, and the president of the United States. They cried. They prayed. They waited. They waited in good faith that someone, anyone would come for them.
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.