Cover Story

Long haul, slow crawl

Cleaning up New Orleans-and other hurricane-ravaged cities-is a door-to-door job, and it takes a lot of bleach

Issue: "Rita: Strike 2," Oct. 1, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Jersey police officers pounding sludge-smeared pavement and searching water-logged homes each day had doubts about New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's plans for repopulating the city long before Hurricane Rita put an end to them.

"The scope and scale of this is unlike anything I've ever seen," said detective David Pereda of the Clifton, N.J., police department. Coming from Mr. Pereda, that's no embellishment: He is part of a 153-man law enforcement task force, all first responders to the World Trade Center attacks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent for the officers to help with New Orleans rescue, recovery, and cleanup just after hurricane waters overflowed the city and overwhelmed local law enforcement. Their experience and grit are well-known; members of the New Jersey unit were busy at Ground Zero with search and rescue when President Bush visited the rubble just days after the attack. Eyewitnesses to the country's worst man-made disaster in memory, the New Jersey cops find themselves four years later the daily patrolmen in its worst natural disaster.

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"At least at the World Trade Center the destruction was confined to a couple of city blocks. But this is just everywhere you go, all over the city," said New Jersey State Trooper Michael White, waiting his turn for decontamination and wiping sweat from his forehead after searching 390 homes during an eight-hour shift. Mr. Pereda agrees. "The French Quarter is in pretty good shape, but everything else in the city is so bad. . . . I think they're going to have to knock it down and start all over again," he said.

The same week New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced a plan to reopen the city to some 180,000 residents in the Algiers, French Quarter, and Garden District sections of New Orleans, New Jersey law enforcement found-in a 10-square-mile area-five people dead in their homes, and still had hundreds of homes to search.

Mr. Nagin had to reverse that decision less than 48 hours later as Tropical Storm Rita turned into a hurricane and headed for the Gulf Coast. But already Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, director of operations for FEMA's Katrina response, called Mr. Nagin's timetable for repopulating New Orleans "extremely problematic," citing a weakened levee system, a lack of water for drinking or bathing, and heavily polluted flood waters. Mr. Allen said too many homes and too many streets are still submerged in water and need to be drained and searched.

It's these streets that New Jersey police officers-taken from the state's department and seven separate counties-spend their days combing as one small part of a city-wide, house-to-house sweep. The New Orleans district assigned to the New Jersey unit alone contains some 10,000 homes. Similar contingents from dozens of states across the country have been fanning out all over New Orleans to aid local law enforcement with the tedious and time-consuming task of house-to-house searches for the living and the dead.

Like many of the New Jersey officers, Mr. White says his experience on search and recovery crews at the World Trade Center motivated him to volunteer for a two-week assignment in New Orleans after Katrina: "A lot of people from all over the country came to our rescue after 9/11, and we wanted to be able to do the same."

New Jersey state police Sergeant Mike Zimmerman drives through the abandoned but drained streets just inside New Orleans city limits, pointing out waterlines on the sides of homes. Homes that sit several feet off the ground escaped flooding, but many smaller houses near ground level filled with several feet of water in the days after Katrina's landfall. On one battered apartment building, the waterline reaches far above the structure's first floor.

Many streets are filled with signs of residents' hasty departures. Ruined cars and trucks sit abandoned in turn lanes and medians, where likely panicked drivers ditched them in an effort to escape the city on foot. Abandoned motor boats dot a nearby levee, where some residents tried to float to higher ground. Two blocks away a row of homes is burned to the ground, presumably from gas leaks or electrical problems, a common occurrence across the city, according to Mr. Zimmerman.

Mr. Zimmerman points out blocks of houses that New Jersey officers have already searched and explains FEMA-instituted search procedures: A squad of four men approaches each home and knocks on the door to check whether the house is locked and secure. If it does appear secure, officers do not enter. If the home has a broken window or an opened door, officers enter to check for survivors, dead bodies, or signs of looting.


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