Global Action: Hurricane Gustav Unites Social-Media Activists
BY Mark A.M. Kramer  /  August 31st, 2008

“At around 5:24pm on August 30th, 2008 a storm of social-media activity was launched by Andy Carvin, National Public Radio’s senior product manager for online communities.  Using “Ning” Andy was able to lay the foundation for the Gustav Information Center (GIC) social network to help in the coordination and dissemination of information relating to Hurricane Gustav.  The GIC community is very diverse and possesses volunteers who have come together in an incredibly short period of time through announcements on Twitter.  There are GIC volunteers from within Louisiana discussing potential ways to harness social media tools with colleagues from all points of the United States including many volunteers from the Caribbean, Europe, Asia and South America.

On behalf of Smart Mobs, I would like to encourage all our readers and community members to take a moment and think about how you can do your small part in this effort to help those affected by Gustav.  Join in the efforts of the Gustav Information Center, volunteer with your local American Red Cross Chapter or take action in any effort you feel comfortable being a part of. Let us join together and harness the social-media tools offered us to open lines of communication and cooperation to make certain we are not unprepared for Gustav to prevent another disaster like we faced with Katrina. Please visit the Gustav Information Center (GIC) and join other social-media activists in coordinating efforts to help our brothers and sisters who will be directly impacted by Gustav.”









More than 75% of Gulf oil on lockdown  /  August 31st, 2008



Opportunities missed in preparing for Gustav  /  August 31, 2008

If there were a Nobel Prize for “I told you so” it might go to Louisiana State University Professor Ivor van Heerden. He warned of the catastrophic consequences a major hurricane would have on New Orleans long before Hurricane Katrina. LSU Professor Ivor Van Heerden foretold Katrina’s damage. Now he’s pointing out missed opportunities to prevent a repeat of the disaster. And as Hurricane Gustav approaches, he says there were many lost opportunities to strengthen the region’s defenses in the three years since Katrina and Rita.

Among them:
*state and federal officials could have done a lot more to assess the weak links in the levee system, from New Orleans to Morgan City, Louisiana.
*more of an effort should have been made to repair damaged areas on levees. In many places, he said, there is bare soil, no grass at all on the levees.
*both before and after Katrina, he said the Army Corps of Engineers has not allowed enough outside experts to work with them to make improvements

But perhaps the greatest neglect has been restoration of the wetlands off the Louisiana coast. It’s estimated that the cypress swamps and barrier islands are disappearing at the rate of a football field every half hour. “For 14 years we’ve been trying to get the state to start a more large scale effort to rebuild the barrier islands,” said van Heerden. These islands act as speed bumps with an approaching storm. “If the existing barrier islands were a little higher and wider, it could knock two to three feet off the storm surge. It would have been about a $200 million dollar project, it could have been finished by now,” he said. While coastal authorities in Louisiana did complete some restoration projects, van Heerden said bureaucratic snags kept many others from ever being started: everything from a limit of what companies could dredge in the Gulf, to the cutting and selling of cypress trees for garden mulch. “This storm has the potential of being a huge economic blow to Louisiana, the United States and it will be felt internationally,” said van Heerden. He predicted the price of gasoline could go through the roof because of the enormous oil and natural gas interests in the Gulf of Mexico. But he said the human toll would be greater. “Who is going to suffer? Not the decision-makers. It is the poor Louisianans. If the [weather] models are correct, Gustav will destroy what Katrina and Rita did not. This is going to be flooding of a much larger area than Katrina,” said van Heerden.

Ivor van Heerden
email : ivor [at] hurricane [dot] lsu [dot] edu

BY Greg Palast  /  08/24/2007

The charge is devastating: That, on August 29, 2005, the White House withheld from the state police the information that New Orleans was about to flood. From almost any other source, I would not have believed it. But this was not just any source. The whistleblower is Dr. Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, the chief technician advising the state on saving lives during Katrina. I’d come to van Heerden about another matter, but in our talks, it was clear he had something he wanted to say, and it was a big one. He charged that the White House, FEMA, and the Army Corps hid, for critical hours, their discovery that the levees surrounding New Orleans were cracking, about to burst and drown the city. Understand that Katrina never hit New Orleans. The hurricane swung east of the city, so the state evacuation directors assumed New Orleans was now safe — and evacuation could slow while emergency efforts moved east with the storm. But unknown to the state, in those crucial hours on Monday, the federal government’s helicopters had filmed the cracks that would become walls of death by Tuesday.

Van Heerden revealed: “FEMA knew at 11 o’clock on Monday that the levees had breeched. At 2 p.m., they flew over the 17th Street Canal and took video of the breech.”

Question: “So the White House wouldn’t tell you the levees had breeched?”
Dr. Van Heerden: “They didn’t tell anybody.”

Question: “And you’re at the Emergency Center.’
Dr. Van Heerden: “I mean nobody knew. The Corps of Engineers knew. FEMA knew. None of us knew.”

I could not get the White House gang to respond to the charges. That leaves the big, big question: WHY? Why on earth would the White House not tell the state to get the remaining folks out of there?

The answer: cost. Political and financial cost. A hurricane is an act of God — but a catastrophic failure of the levees is an act of Bush. Under law dating back to 1935, a breech of the federal levee system makes the damage — and the deaths — a federal responsibility. That means, as van Heeden points out, “these people must be compensated.”

The federal government, by law, must build and maintain the Mississippi River levees to withstand known dangers — or pay the price when they fail. Indeed, that was the rule applied in the storms that hit Westhampton Dunes, New York, in 1992. There, when federal sea barriers failed, the floodwaters wiped away 190 homes. The Feds rebuilt them from the public treasury. But these were not just any homes. They are worth an average of $3 million apiece — the summer homes of movie stars and celebrity speculators. There were no movie stars floating face down in the Lower Ninth Ward nor in Lakeview nor in St. Bernard Parish. For the ‘luvvies’ of Westhampton Dunes, the federal government even trucked in sand to replace the beaches. But for New Orleans’ survivors, there’s the aluminum gulag of FEMA trailer parks. Today, two years later, 89,000 families still live in this mobile home Guantanamo — with no plan whatsoever for their return. And what was the effect of the White House’s self-serving delay? I spoke with van Heerden in his university office. The computer model of the hurricane flashed quietly as I waited for him to answer. Then he said, “Fifteen hundred people drowned. That’s the bottom line.”



La. Report Blames Corps of Engineers for New Orleans Levee Breaks
BY Janet McConnaughey  /  March 23, 2007

Decades of mistakes – some as basic as not knowing the elevation of New Orleans – led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to believe its levees and floodwalls would protect the city from a storm as strong as Hurricane Katrina, a report released March 21 concludes. The corps used obsolete research to design flood-control structures that were built too low and improperly maintained, a group of engineers and storm researchers called Team Louisiana said in its 475-page report. The report was commissioned by the state Department of Transportation and Development. The system was intended to be strong enough to handle a Category 3 hurricane like Katrina, which devastated New Orleans when levees broke. Two major studies last year looked at the engineering problems that caused the 2005 breaches, but the new study also closely examines whether the problems could have been foreseen when the flood-control system was created. The report said the errors date to the original plans in 1965, which relied on land height measurements from 1929. Because the city had sunk over the years, the plans called for levees that were 1 to 2 feet too low. “This mistake was locked in” for continuing construction by a policy adopted in 1985, even though scientists knew how fast New Orleans was sinking, the report said. By the time Katrina hit, the levees were as much as 5 feet too low. The report also said the corps never used a storm surge model released in 1979 by the National Hurricane Center. “If they had, they would have realized that their levee system wasn’t high enough for a Category 3 storm at all,” said team leader Ivor van Heerden, a Louisiana State University professor, deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and a corps critic. Additionally, he said the corps ignored its own models that suggested that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a navigation channel completed in the early 1960s, would funnel storm surge into St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans. The corps also should have known two canals would fail when water levels reached 10 feet. Van Heerden said that “a back-of-the-envelope calculation” would have alerted engineers to a problem with one of the canals, and that a soil strength analysis available since the 1950s would have highlighted flaws in the other. The corps was preparing a response, spokesman John Hall said. Van Heerden said almost all the problems could have been avoided if independent engineers had reviewed the corps’ plans before construction started. Before Katrina struck, he said, he and fellow researchers had found sagging levees. He enlisted his students to ask the corps about them, and the agency responded by saying “‘These were federal levees built to federal standards and they’re not going to fail,”’ he said. The report recommended an independent planning process for hurricane protection, and an independent, bipartisan panel similar to the Sept. 11 Commission to investigate why levees failed. The corps is expected to release a study soon tracing the decision-making process.

Levees built incorrectly, Army Corps says  /  December 1, 2005
Steel reinforcing didn’t go as deeply as called for – leaving the flood walls too weak – and government engineers can’t explain why

(New Orleans) – Government engineers performing sonar tests at the site of a major levee failure found exactly what independent investigators said they would – that steel reinforcements barely went more than half as deep as they were supposed to, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said. “We’ve come up with similar results” to those from earlier tests performed by a team of Louisiana State University engineers, said Walter Baumy, the corps’ chief engineer for the New Orleans District. Baumy said the corps is unable to explain the disparity between what its 1993 design documents show was supposed to be there and what has been found. The documents indicated that the steel reinforcements in the levee, known as sheet piling, went to a depth of 17.5 feet below sea level. Sonar tests indicated the pilings went only to 10 feetbelow sea level, meaning the flood wall would have been much weaker than advertised.

The LSU team is working on a report for the state Department of Transportation – due out in January – that will say that there were serious, fundamental design and construction flaws at both the 17th Street and London Avenue canals. Both broke during Hurricane Katrina, allowing floodwaters to pour into the city’s western and central neighborhoods and encroach on downtown. The team’s leader, Ivor van Heerden, said Wednesday that the levee design ensured failure under the type of water pressure exerted by Katrina’s storm surge. The team’s computer modeling showed that the designs failed to account for loose, porous soils such as sand and peat that were prone to allowing water to seep from the canal through to the dry side of the levee. Much deeper steel pilings driven well below the canal bottoms likely would have stopped seepage to the dry side of the levees, engineers have said. But the bottom tip of the pilings, at 10 feet below sea level, did not even reach as deep as the canal bottoms. “Now that we’ve done the soil strength calculations and looked at the actual design, the design wasn’t up to the task,” van Heerden said. “You have a section of canal that wasn’t covered by sheet metal.” LSU computer models showed that even if the pilings had gone to 17.5 feet below sea level at 17th Street as design documents said they should have, they still would have failed. Engineering studies before construction of the flood wall were performed by Eustis Engineering, Modjeski and Masters Inc. and the corps. Members of van Heerden’s team have expressed shock that all three could have missed what they characterized as fundamental flaws. Calls put in to Eustis, and Modjeski and Masters were not returned Wednesday. However, van Heerden said the federal government bears ultimate responsibility. “The
federal government built the levees, the federal government supplied that security, the security system failed, as a consequence these 100,000 families have lost everything,” van Heerden said. “In our opinion, the federal government needs to step up to the plate.”


If it keep on raining, the levee’s gonna break
If it keep on raining, the levee’s gonna break
Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

Well, I worked on the levee, mama, both night and day
I worked on the levee, mama, both night and day
I got to the river and I threw my clothes away

I paid my time and now I’m good as new,
I paid my time and now I’m as good as new.
They can’t take me back unless I want them to

If it keep on raining, the levee’s gonna break
If it keep on raining, the levee’s gonna break
Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take…



A.(1)  Whenever a prisoner sentenced to a parish prison of any parish of the state, by any court of competent jurisdiction, or a prisoner in a parish prison awaiting transfer to a state correctional facility shall be willing of his own free will to perform manual labor upon any of the public roads, levees, streets, or public buildings, works, or improvements inside or outside of the prison, or in or upon the buildings, other improvements, or property of any organization which has qualified for tax-exempt status under 26 U.S.C. 501(c)(3), 501(c) (19), or 501(c)(23), the sheriff may set the prisoner to work.

“Levee camps arose throughout the post-Civil War South as large numbers of manual laborers (typically African American) were gathered, sometimes by force, to build and maintain systems of earthen levees that held rivers in their channels, thus making more farmland available and (theoretically) minimizing the hazards of annual flooding. Frequent locations of group work-song singing and solo field hollers, they were notoriously difficult and violent places to make a living.”




“Prison labor is used frequently by the District and there exists a cooperative endeavor agreement with the Madison Parish Detention Center to provide that labor.  The agreement requires that the District provide meals and necessary clothing (i.e. boots) not normally provided by the Detention Center while performing services for the District.  Prison labor is used during flooding to help maintain the levees.  Recently one trusty has been utilized regularly to do maintenance on the District’s equipment.  There were no records available to track which prisoners worked where and when.  A review of meal receipts provided no information on the number of prisoners fed and merely showed costs of $6 to $12.50 a day for food.”


In 1927, blacks were forced to work on levee camps in order to help curtail and control the flooding. Tents were set up along the levee camps and the workers were forced to stay in them. Moreover, blacks had to work without pay for the Red Cross and on the levees in order to receive food for themselves and their families. The National Guard ordered blacks in the camps to work like slaves under the threat of being shot. The Chicago Defender ran a column by Ida B. Wells-Barnett during the crisis in which she ran stories from refugees who had escaped the slave camps. The following is an excerpt from one of Wells-Barnett’s columns in which she includes a narrative from one of the refugees:

Meanwhile John Jones (that is not his [real] name), 28 years old, came to my door Friday evening. He was in his shirt sleeves and had a cotton blanket rolled up under his arm. He had just escaped from the government camp in Louisiana. He was born and reared in that state and when the high water came about 300 of them were taken to the camp. All the men were put in one long tent and the women and children in another. He was there 15 days and was not permitted to associate with his wife and children in all that time. They had to lie on the floor with a piece of canvas only under them and no covering. Of course they slept in their clothes and had no change. He said: “The first thing they do is to line you up and give you a ‘shot’ then they give you something to eat and tell you to lie down for a day. The ‘shots’ make you sick and sometimes are fatal. I saw one man drop dead as soon as he had received the injection. He was about 40 years old. Over 25 people died in our camp from these shots.”

“The next morning the gong rang at 5:30 o’clock and we got a breakfast of salty bacon, one egg, bread and some brownish water they called coffee with no sugar. Then the boss man arrived and told us that we were to go to work on the levee and would be given $1 a day and board. He has a gun and you know its useless to argue or refuse to go, so you say you all and take the shovel and go.

“At noontime they gave us navy beans, bread, and more of the stuff they called coffee with no sugar. Then back to work until night, when we get potatoes, corn beef, hash and more of that same so-called coffee.

“It was chilly without any cover so I asked for a blanket, but they wouldn’t give me one. Then I said I would pay for one out of my wages and got it. I have it here. It is all I got for my 15 days’ work. ”

The refugee went on to share his plight of telling his “boss man” that he wanted to stop work and leave the camp, but was told if he tried to leave then he would be shot. He ended up getting shot by the guard in his attempt to leave, and he afterwards hitchhiked from the levee camp to Illinois before sending for his wife who stayed behind in the camp. This refugee story represents the horrendous struggles experienced by tens of thousands of blacks after the 1927 flood that ignited condemnations from people all over the country. In addition to being forced to toil on the levee camps, blacks were also forced to labor as garbage collectors. While white areas of flooded regions were undergoing relatively rapid clean up (done by blacks), the black neighborhoods became the dumping ground for all the trash from the white sections, which rendered these sections as disease breeding and uninhabitable. Thanks to media outlets such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier and the NAACP magazine Crisis, people all over the country condemned both the handling of blacks in the region as well as the government for their racist treatment.

Background of the levees
The construction of levees was a lucrative endeavor as white developers and engineers were competing and lobbying for profitable government contracts since the 1860s (while the laborers who actually built the levees were paid nothing). However, higher and stronger levees that were supposed to prevent flooding also eroded wetlands because they thwart the natural dispersal of sediment to the marshland, which then causes more severe hurricanes and flooding (because there is less land to buffer and weaken the incoming hurricane from the Gulf of Mexico to inhabited areas). In sum, the Mississippi River is meant to flood naturally, but because of corporate interests to control its flood waters in order to maintain crop production and accumulation, we have an extensive system of levees and dikes that in the end increases the pressure on the river, erodes coastland, and can cause even more disasterous flooding. Although corporate interests operate against the welfare of people, oppressed persons have consistently organized to resist such injustice.

Responses and Resistance
The black newspaper Chicago Defender had a special correspondent in the flood region and Ida B. Wells-Barnett also wrote special columns during the disaster. In one of her columns, Wells-Barnett posed the following question: “Why can’t the Race, who are 90% of the actual flood sufferers, share in that $14,000,000 relief fund which the country sent freely to the flood district?” After she shared the first-hand accounts from refugees who escaped the slave camps, Wells-Barnett made a call to action; she urged the black community to ask similar questions, demand answers, share this information with the whole country, and then act for change. She tells all black people to “pass resolutions asking for investigations of these camps and recommending better protection for our Race in their clubs, churches, lodges, and fraternal societies and send them to President Coolidge, Secretary Hoover, the National Red Cross…” She urged people to keep crying aloud until something is done and added that “it will require the combined influence of all our people in the North, East, and West, where our votes count, to put a stop to the slavery that is going on right now in the government camps in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.” Wells-Barnett and other writers were critical of the black bourgeoisie who they felt had traded out the poorer persons of their race by hiding the true brutish conditions of the refugees in the camps. For instance, Wells-Barnett and DuBois lambasted the Colored Committee Report spearheaded by Moton as not depicting the actual reality of the slave camps and, in response, the NAACP sent their own investigator to the area.

The NAACP played an active role in relief and advocacy during the Great Flood. As the Delta area began experiencing immense flooding, African Americans all over the country began writing letters to the national offices of the Urban League and the NAACP, as well as to black newspapers, demanding that they investigate the allegations of peonage and forced labor. Initially, Walter White, the assistant secretary of the NAACP, was hesitant to act on false rumors, but as he realized the accuracy of the reports from the region, he paid a visit to the area and disseminated his findings in publications such as the New York Times and The Nation. White accused the wealthy landlords in the Delta of using the disaster as a pretext to hold black people in peonage. The NAACP also helped collect funds for aid that would go directly towards the black refugees. Many African Americans suspected donating money to the Red Cross, because they feared that the funds would not go to help the black flood victims. In response to these suspicions, the New Orleans branch of the NAACP consented to receive flood relief funds for the black victims and said “the New Orleans branch will handle anything for the flood sufferers.” In addition to efforts by the NAACP, the black media made attempts to ensure that black refugees were getting appropriate assistance.

The Associated Negro Press also demanded that Coolidge appoint a ‘colored’ officer to work with whites in administering relief so that the relief would correctly go to the refugees who are 90% black. Further, the black newspaper Pittsburgh Courier was also deputized by the Red Cross to collect funds for flood refugees. This newspaper also reported on the Special Conference on Flood Relief in which social worker executives offered to train “Negro social workers through the National Urban League…for organizing Negro flood sufferers for relief and family rehabilitation.” Although the government did respond to such demands by appointing black people to lead relief efforts, such as Moton’s committee, these blacks, who were typically bourgeois, were also criticized by more radical activists such as Wells-Barnett and DuBois for taking bribes by white businessmen and landlords in exchange for convincing poor blacks to be subordinate and stay in the Delta region.

The refugees forced to work in the levee slave camps engaged in forms of resistance against their oppressors. Rebellions would often occur whenever a guard or overseer inflicted some form of violence against a refugee. For instance, the Chicago Defender reported that a near riot occurred in Mississippi when the police arrested and jailed a woman named Mrs. Nancy Clark Peters when she objected to her husband’s forced conscription to work on the levee. Another near race riot occurred when an overseer beat a 19-year-old refugee with a gun because he asked for a rest break. This incident caused the levee night workers to quit ‘cold’ in addition to the near race insurrection. A substantial uprising almost occurred because of the death of James Gordon, a levee worker in Greenville, MS who was shot by a white police officer for refusing to return to work during his shift off. Gordon’s death sparked intense anger among the black community that unloading of supplies, cleaning of white businesses, and other labor performed by blacks came to a halt, while both blacks and whites armed themselves. Even the African-Americans on the levee kept shovels, hoes, and knives within reach. Will Percy was able to superficially fan the flames of anger in the black community, although the rage continued to linger within. These instances exhibit the solidarity of the black workers such that when one of them was abused, the entire group would rise up in protest. The actions that sparked the riots typically involved a black person standing up to the authority of the police or army either by not agreeing to follow orders or contesting their use of force. The riots are a form of protest perhaps less theatrical than the ones of today (such as rallies and demonstrations). In considering riots as a form of resistance, it is important to consider this question: to what end did the black people rebel and what was the impact of their rebellion? I would like to argue that this form of rebellion on the part of levee workers was a collective form of resistance because blacks were defying the forced labor conditions that the state imposed on them through using intimidation; so this resistance represents a challenge to the state-sponsored coercion. The nature of protest involving riots is characteristic of the collective nature of living and work conditions that black people experienced at that time.

New Orleans Prisoners Abandoned After Katrina
By Matt Gnaizda  /  Oct 01, 2005

The horrors of the Superdome have become the epitome of the plight of Hurricane Katrina victims, but in one New Orleans facility, victims may have fared even worse. In Orleans Parish Prison, one of the nation’s largest and most notorious jails, hundreds were left for days in flooded cells without food, drinking water, or supervision. One month later, over 500 of them are missing. “We were strictly abandoned. They just left us,” said Dan Bright, one of the prisoners, in a radio interview with the radio show Democracy Now! “When we realized what was going on, it was too late. It was total chaos. The water was up to our chest… No one came to our rescue.” Democracy Now recently brought together former detainee Bright, Human Rights Watch Researcher Corrine Carey, Louisiana defense attorney Phyllis Mann, and a criminal defense lawyer to discuss the fate of prisoners during the hurricane and the grueling relocation process.

According to the interviewees, just before Katrina hit, an additional 2,000 prisoners had been evacuated from nearby prisons to Orleans Parish, which normally housed 7,500 to 8,000 inmates at a time. As floods following the storm hit this overcrowded facility, the water level began to rise. “There was no air circulation, and the toilets had started to back up. So the stench was unbearable for these prisoners,” said Ms. Carey from Human Rights Watch on the radio show. She said that the Orleans Parish sheriff, Marlin Gusman, didn’t call the State Department of Corrections for assistance until 18 hours after Katrina struck. “We started to see people…hangin’ shirts on fire out the windows. They were wavin’ ‘em,” an Orleans Parish Prison officer told Human Rights Watch. “Then we saw them jumping out of the windows.” Some inmates were trapped in their cells in deep water; others managed to kick open cell doors and escape to higher ground.

The guards had left the facility prior to the storm, and no evacuation plan was implemented. While most prisoners were evacuated by the next day, the 600 prisoners in the Templeman III building were not evacuated until Thursday, September 1, four days after the storm hit. Many of them had not been convicted of a crime, and were housed there awaiting court hearings for misdemeanors or city violations, said defense attorney Phyllis Mann. During the evacuation and relocation, prisoners were dispersed to facilities throughout New Orleans and Texas. Mr. Bright said he and hundreds of other prisoners were left for days on a field of wet grass at Hunt’s Correctional Center near Baton Rouge. There were no toilets, and guards came once a day to throw peanut butter sandwiches over the gate to the hungry, rowdy prisoners, some of whom were death-row inmates. Some were there for as long as a week, said Mr. Bright. He was later transferred to another prison before he saw a judge and was released. Human Rights watch compiled two lists of prisoners from the Department of Corrections: one of those present before the storm, and the other of those evacuated. As of the Democracy Now! interview on September 27, Human Rights Watch said that 517, including 130 from the Templeman III building, were still unaccounted for. One veteran Orleans Parish corrections officer told Human Rights Watch, “Ain’t no tellin’ what happened to those people.” Orleans Parish Prison officials could not be reached for comment, because phone lines are down.

Katrina Exposes Orleans Parish Prison’s Flaws
BY Matt Gnaizda  /  Oct 16, 2005

In August, Mr. Addison was sentenced to ten days in OPP for trespassing and disturbing the peace. He was due to be released on the morning of Monday, August 29, the day Katrina struck. Not only was he not released, he says, but he was bounced around to different facilities over the course of the lengthy evacuation process, and he was not released until a full 31 days later. Mr. Addison claims that the guards at OPP abandoned prisoners
immediately following Hurricane Katrina. Juveniles, misdemeanor offenders, and convicted felons were all mixed together. He and other prisoners had no electricity, food or fresh water for several days; meanwhile, the floodwaters, which he described as “nasty, nasty”—full of urine and excrement—rose at first to knee-level, and eventually so high that all the prisoners in his first-floor cell had to climb on the top bed bunks for safety. On the third day, they were moved outside to the bridge, where they had to wait out in the sun, still with no fresh water. Eventually, guards tossed hotdogs to them.

OPP, which is the equivalent of a county jail, is one of the largest of its kind in the nation, even though New Orleans is far from one of the most populous US cities. It holds 6,000–8,000 people at any given time in its ten buildings. “The stories [from Orleans Parish Prison inmates] are so unbelievable that people look at them and think, ‘This can’t possibly be true,’” says Human Rights Watch researcher Corrine Carrie. New Orleans has some of the least prisoner-friendly laws of any US city, says Rachel Jones, a trial lawyer at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center. One can be detained for up to 45 days for a misdemeanor before seeing a judge or a lawyer, even if the charges are completely unfounded, she says. “They do the bare minimum of what the [US] Supreme Court requires.”

Ben Cohen, a New Orleans capital defense lawyer who has been doing pro bono work on behalf of impoverished pre-trial detainees, highlights a problem that he calls a “system of indentured servitude,” where petty-offenders who want release are encouraged to plead guilty in exchange for time served. They are often unaware that they’ll be saddled with court-costs and probation fees of $40 per month for up to five years, or a total of $2,400—no small potatoes for a minimum-wage earner. “It creates a cycle of incarceration where poor people are routinely sent back to jail for no other offense, except that they couldn’t pay their fines and fees.” Ultimately, the fines and fees are what Cohen describes as the “crack cocaine” of the criminal justice system: the judges, court reporters, and defense lawyers for the poor need the fees imposed or to get paid, but its an “easy high” that undermines the integrity of the process. It is a system, Cohen says, that “lets the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys off easy, all on the back of poor people who carry the burden of an under-funded system.”

The evacuation of OPP was perhaps the largest prison evacuation in U.S. history. While OPP was prepared to withstand the hurricane itself, says Ms. Lapeyrolerie, it was totally unprepared for the levee breaks which flooded the buildings up to seven feet deep. It took three 24-hour days of evacuations to load prisoners onto boats and busses. They had to call the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections to get additional boats and SWAT team personnel. Human Rights Watch claims that several hundred prisoners who were imprisoned before the storm are still unaccounted for. Ms. Lapeyrolerie says Sheriff Gusman “categorically denies it” and that everyone has been accounted for. But later in the phone interview she revealed there may actually have been some escapees, just not from the maximum security building.


Many of the men held at jail had been arrested for offenses like criminal trespass, public drunkenness or disorderly conduct. Many had not even been brought before a judge and charged, much less been convicted. But at Templeman III, which housed about 600 inmates, there was no prison staff to help the prisoners. Inmates interviewed by Human Rights Watch varied about when they last remember seeing guards at the facility, but they all insisted that there were no correctional officers in the facility on Monday, August 29. A spokeswoman for the Orleans parish sheriff’s department told Human Rights Watch she did not know whether the officers at Templeman III had left the building before the evacuation.

According to inmates interviewed by Human Rights Watch, they had no food or water from the inmates’ last meal over the weekend of August 27-28 until they were evacuated on Thursday, September 1. By Monday, August 29, the generators had died, leaving them without lights and sealed in without air circulation. The toilets backed up, creating an
unbearable stench. “They left us to die there,” Dan Bright, an Orleans Parish Prison inmate told Human Rights Watch at Rapides Parish Prison, where he was sent after the evacuation. As the water began rising on the first floor, prisoners became anxious and then desperate. Some of the inmates were able to force open their cell doors, helped by inmates held in the common area. All of them, however, remained trapped in the locked facility. “The water started rising, it was getting to here,” said Earrand Kelly, an inmate from Templeman III, as he pointed at his neck. “We was calling down to the guys in the cells under us, talking to them every couple of minutes. They were crying, they were scared. The one that I was cool with, he was saying ‘I’m scared. I feel like I’m about to drown.’ He was crying.” Some inmates from Templeman III have said they saw bodies floating in the floodwaters as they were evacuated from the prison. A number of inmates told Human Rights Watch that they were not able to get everyone out from their cells. “At best, the inmates were left to fend for themselves,” said Carey. “At worst, some may have died.”

Human Rights Watch was not able to speak directly with Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gussman or the ranking official in charge of Templeman III. A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department told Human Rights Watch that search-and-rescue teams had gone to the prison and she insisted that “nobody drowned, nobody was left behind.” Human Rights Watch compared an official list of all inmates held at Orleans Parish Prison immediately prior to the hurricane with the most recent list of the evacuated inmates compiled by the state Department of Corrections and Public Safety (which was entitled, “All Offenders Evacuated”). However, the list did not include 517 inmates from the jail, including 130 from Templeman III.

Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of an interview between
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, and members of the group Human Rights Watch.

Excerpts of Letters from Prisoners Abandoned to Katrina

[Name and inmate number redacted]
LA State Penitentiary
Angola, Louisiana 70712

October 10, 2005

Dear Human Rights Watch; Corinne Carey

I’m a inmate from New Orleans Parish Prison, housed at Conchetta. This facility only housed women. I read your article from the Website and I would like to tell you my story. We women inmates were also left to die, without medical attention, no food, no water. We lived in high waters, the building is 3 floors, “the first floor flooded to the top, that force us to move to the second floor. Inmates were beaten by Deputy’s it was a panic situation. Gas lines broke. Living in contaminated waters for 3 long miserable days. The reason I’m writing this letter is because we women would like to be interviewed also to tell our version. I appreciate you taking the time to read this letter. We women hope to hear from Human Rights Watch soon.


[name redacted]
[Forwarding address redacted]

* * * * *

[Name redacted], I too was a victim of Katrina. Orleans-Parish Inmate.


To: Whom it may concern;

I am one of the surviving inmates from Hurricane Katrina! I was housed in the CTA Building. One of the last, last, female facilities to evacuate. We were without food, water, lights, and medical attention for over 4 days. I watched a lot of my fellow inmates pass out. We were ingesting all sorts of noxious gasses. To the extent they made you nauseous and lightheaded. I’ve been incarcerated now over 11 months never been convicted or sentenced. A lot of the officers left us there to die. The sheriff stated on national T.V. that the inmates are to remain where they belong! Such a cruel and unjustifiable statement. Besides all of that madness they sprayed some inmates with mace. We have to use the restroom out in the open. They drew guns on us as if we were trying to escape! All I wanted to do was get to safety. Some of us may be guilty of crimes, and some may not. But each life is still precious and all people should be treated equal. We weren’t allowed to bring anything with us such as family pictures! Probably the only ones that could have been salvaged. There is one woman however, stayed with the inmates to the bitter end. Her name is: Colonel Joseph. She was a god sent Angel. So many deputies abandon us. It was a very scary ordeal. So many times I saw my life flash before my eyes. I’ve never been a vengeful person, but something needs to be done because that was definitely cruel and unjustifiable the actions they took in our safety. We had no alternative but to end of drinking toilet water!

[name and inmate number redacted]

Letter also signed by:
[29 other Angola women inmates, names and inmate numbers redacted]

* * * * *

[name and inmate number redacted]
Camp F D4-L
Angola, LA 70712

A Inmate From Templeman Four

“To Whom it may Concern”

My name is [name and inmate number redacted] an inmate that was housed at Orleans Parish Prison, and my location was at Templeman 4. Let me tell some of what I what through well for starters it started Aug, 28, 2005 when the lights went out but the generator came on it was hot we had no water or food we were locked on our dorms with no air for 24 hours. Monday on the 29th the day of the hurricane still no food or water, and no air and on top of all that the water started to rise and rise!! And yet we are still locked down like dogs. The water got as high as to the second bunk before they decided to move us out of the building. That’s when sheriff Marlin Gusman came took us out the Templeman 4 building, and move us to Templeman 2which was no better. That building was dirty where the man had set fires to get out we suffered there until from 4:00am until maybe 2:00pm Thursday evening still no food or water. After that we walk through water up to our chest where we stood in the front of I.P.C. for at least 12 hours!! We were just standing in them infested waters all those hours. Still no food or water. After that we walk through more water to board the boats after standing in that funky infested water at about 12:30 am midnight that is!! From there they brought us to the Broad Overpass where some of the male inmates were out there. We had to sleep on top of the Bridge overnight still no food or water. So then we had to use the rest room right there in the open in front free would people and the male inmates and I think that was truly cruel and don’t talk about the shot guns they were holding on us we couldn’t talk or else we are going to get shot. Wednesday morning some of us started passing out from no water or food for at least four days. So from there the people from D.O.C. came got us from the overpass and brought us to I-10 interstate where we had to wait for transportation. And that’s just the beginning of that horrible nightmare, and just like the make inmates from Templeman 3 said they left us to die they didn’t care what happen to us I believe they wish we would have died. But thank God these people here at Angola La. especially warden Burl Cain if it wouldn’t have been for him and the rest of D.O.C. we would have!!! Oh there’s more but I guess you know already.

Yours Truly,
[name redacted]

* * * * *

[Letter undated, postmarked October 15, 2005]

On September 22, 2005 a petition was written and signed by these evacuated inmates of Orleans Parish Prison plus myself. Concerning our health, well being, also horrific conditions in which we had to survive as opposed to being housed at Avoyelles Corrections Center (Auto Mechanic Garage). Here is a list of the various conditions in which we had to live under.

Signs of all sorts indicating the surrounding as well.

Chemical storage, no fire extinguisher, Caution flammable gas, a car painting and body & fender shop, compressed air, Danger High Voltage, sandblasting shop, Danger No Smoking, oxygen, acetylene, open gated tool shed and supplies, use eye protective equipment in designated area, caution wear eye protection, 120 inmates sharing 2 port-o-let, severely infested with big mosquitos and other insects, limited 4 minutes to eat at least, also 4 minutes to phone call/1 per week, being confined to isolation for talking, walking also speaking, on conditions asking legit questions, and consequences very brutal also severe, physical beating, being gased and left that way for days, put in a cell 85% naked wearing only a hospital gown to be belittled among other men, 3 to a 2 man cell without matts, pillows, or even cover, and personal hygiene items, violating our constitutional rights, add to that the wardens participates as well in just about every event that takes place, only to find it exciting, and amusing, not to mention exciting. We are literally suffering and being treated as if we are animals rather than humans let alone inmates. Justice haven’t been served neither has our rights. Many correction officers played favoritism to the fact that, because we all are from New Orleans that we are all menaces to society. They find any and every reason to manipulated the inmates that require medical attention don’t get it at they time of need. Some of the officers even with held mail outgoing and incoming. They also with held out messages from family members which could have been important just like the mail. They only allowed us 30 minutes for recreation for all 428 inmates. 30 minutes for 2 sides each. Meals are half done. Because we are eating at Culinary Arts. Where our food is experimental meals. When inmates go to the block (isolation) they take our shoes. And the inmates whoever working as the cell block orderly keep them. On sell them to other inmates whoever within there center grounds. One night a bat flew in the Auto Mechanic Garage. There is no clean air circulating also no ventilation very unsanitary and inhumane. And that how our experience as Orleans Paris Prisoners where and still is at Avoyelles Correctional Center (K/A) Cottonport. And these thing shouldn’t be this way.

Can you help in appointing us a lawyer, if you can my phone number is
[phone number redacted]

Or if by anyway you need me for more information my address is:
[address redacted]
[name redacted]

* * * * *

[Name, inmate number, and dorm location redacted]
State Penitentiary
Angola, LA 70712
Saturday, October 15, 2005

To Whom it May Concern:

I had received your address regarding a class action lawsuit against the city of New Orleans and all parties involved from several Katrina Evacuees Inmates who had encouraged me to write to your organization now instead of later.

I had been arrested for bad checks, on my own checking account, at [location and date of the offense redacted], and taken to central booking on Tulane Avenue and Broad Street. I was booked on one charged and stripped of all personal belongings; I wasn’t given my pills for diabetes or any of three pairs of prescription eyeglasses, where I now sit at LSP with blurred vision. I also had my expired [name of ID card redacted] and social security card stolen in my presence while in central booking. I was taken to late night court and bail was set for $2,500.00, then transported to jail (Orleans Parish Prison, aka Concheta or CTA, 3600 Perdido Street), arriving early Tuesday morning, August 23rd. I had never been arrested before and found the whole experience very humiliating.

Bad goes to worse. Hurricane Katrina hits Sunday, August 28th, leaving most of New Orleans under five feet to nine feet of water. From that time on until our rescue on Wednesday afternoon, August 31st, by a three-man team from Angola, O.P.A. population was not evacuated, and there was no talk heard to evacuate. No preparations for food or water were made for us. We went without food, and some inmates found out that on the third floor of the building, there was still water running from a sink; it was warm but drinkable. No food, little water, no electricity, a couple of women broke out two of the three “dormitory” windows for air on our second day of abandonment by the city (we were given a full meal of two sandwiches, apples, cookies, bottled water, and other assorted snacks after our rescue by a three-man Angola team by boats). The toilets had stopped working the second day and the women used the showers for toilet needs. The first floor flooded out and was evacuated to the second and third floor dorms, resulting in overcrowding and “dramas” caused by tempers and not knowing if we would be rescued or not at this point. I was taken to the hospital on LSP grounds within twelve hours of our rescue, suffering severe hemroids caused by an impacted colon and heavy menstrual bleeding, as well as dehydration and treated. We’ve been here since our arrival on Thursday, September 1, 2005. Out of 1,500 O.P.P. inmates, only 750 inmates/”Katrina Evacuees” have been released over the seven weeks since Katrina from this all male penal institution.

Please, add my name and statement to this class-action lawsuit

[name redacted]

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