Criswell College Students Go into the Aftermath of Katrina


Preparing food for the Salvation Army Mobile Canteens at 3:30am.
Photo by Josh Ramsey.

We parked our Canteen truck right next to the tents where military vehicles were dropping off and processing evacuees in front of the now infamous Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. This was the site that saw thousands of New Orleans residents stranded without food and bathrooms for days after the levees broke. It became a den of misery and lawlessness.

A Military Policeman informed me that when the army arrived, they found dead bodies inside the Convention Center—bodies that had been brutalized, some apparently mugged and others raped. It is places like these where the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) has been providing disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The work I was doing was part of the SBTC’s partnership with the Salvation Army. The SBTC and the Salvation Army have set up a staging area in Baton Rouge, LA that is providing disaster relief to those who are in the wake of devastation caused by the Hurrican. A group of Criswell College students (led by me) recently joined in that effort.

The SBTC partnership with the Salvation Army in Baton Rouge requires SBC volunteers to load and to man Salvation Army Mobile Canteens. Canteens are trucks outfitted to transport, to prepare, and to distribute food to victims of disaster. The SBTC staging area in Baton Rouge prepares approximately 20,000 to 35,000 meals per day to be distributed by disaster relief volunteers. On Saturday alone, the so-called “bologna brigade” made 20,000 bologna sandwiches to be distributed to victims.

I helped to man a Canteen that provided relief inside the city of New Orleans itself. I found that the catastrophic impact of Katrina was not adequately depicted by the pictures I had seen on the television. Rancid flood waters covered huge swaths of the city, and innumerable buildings lay in ruins. An on-the-ground view of the landscape revealed the sheer scope of the disaster, and it was indeed devastating.

My partner, Mark Bjornholm, and I spent the majority of our time in New Orleans feeding evacuees and rescue workers who were holed up at the Convention Center. A week ago, there were tens of thousands waiting in line to be evacuated. When we served, they were arriving sporadically, and there was no line for them to wait in. The ones who came to our truck were the last hold-outs. One military man told me that these were the ones who would have stayed even longer, but their food, provisions, and will to continue had finally given out.

All the evacuees who arrived at our station looked bedraggled and depressed. And who could blame them? They had lost everything, and now they were leaving home behind. We gave them a meal and a word of condolence for their lost city. And we prayed for them.

We fed a bus driver named Terrence and his family at the evacuation site. Terrence was able to hold on to his job after losing his home and all his belongings in the hurricane. Now he, his wife Raquel, and his three children (Caitlyn, 11yrs; Corey, 11yrs; and Cayla, 7yrs.) have made Terrence’s bus their new home.

Other Criswell College students who manned Canteen trucks made it outside of New Orleans proper and into some of the suburbs that were ravaged by Katrina. Johnny Guthrie and John Ailie went into Kenner, LA where residents were still living with standing water and without power. All of the residents, afraid to come out of their homes for fear of a forced evacuation, were relieved to see the Canteen come rolling into their neighborhood. Guthrie and Ailie reported that the people they served said that the SBTC/Salvation Army truck was the first disaster relief team that they had seen, and this nearly two weeks after the storm. Ailie told each person that he fed, “We’re here to serve you and to serve Jesus Christ.”

Even though the Criswell College students’ primary task was to distribute food, they also found time to distribute the Gospel. In just two days, students estimated that they had made 67 Gospel presentations, given out 119 Bibles, and handed out 1,126 tracts.

Bill Davenport, the director of SBTC disaster relief and leader of the staging area in Baton Rouge, said that his biggest concern is that after the media-hype of Hurricane Katrina dies down he will be left with all the food, equipment, and provisions for relief, but no help.

Needless to say, there is much left to do in New Orleans and in the outlying areas that are sheltering evacuees. And there remains a huge question as to what the impact will be when Hurricane Rita reaches the Gulf Coast this weekend. My hope is that whatever the disaster, God will send more workers out to embody the Gospel in disaster relief efforts.

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More Scenes from New Orleans

Band of Cobelligerents: Denny, Mark (SBC), George, and Mike (Salvation Army). These are the four who manned our Canteen truck. Denny and Mark are from Dallas, TX; George and Mike are from Ohio. It was a real pleasure working with these guys.


The filth and stench outside the Convention Center was unbelievable.


Terrence and his family came through the line at our Canteen truck. Terrence was able to hold on to his job after losing his home and all his belongings in the hurricane. Now he, his wife Raquel, and his three children (Caitlyn, 11yrs; Corey, 11yrs; and Cayla, 7yrs.) have made Terrence’s bus their new home.


USS Harry Truman docked at the Riverwalk which runs alongside the Mississippi River in New Orleans.


It was eerie to see that the Mississippi River Bridge going into New Orleans was deserted.


Denny in front of the Canteen talking to an immigration officer.


Evacuees arriving at our position in front of the Convention Center.


It was our pleasure to serve members of the 82nd Airborne stationed inside the evacuation site.


Flooded street in New Orleans.


Pure D nastiness.


This is a view of downtown from I-10 looking south. We could only drive so far north before having to turn around because flood waters had cut off I-10.


Here we are making nice with the guys who are now running the streets of New Orleans. They weren’t forcing evacuations, but boy is it intimidating to see these guys rolling down the streets of the neighborhood in their armored vehicles.


What can I say? I just like Humvees.

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Scenes from New Orleans

These are two signs I found on a building on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. The sign on the left is the initial warning to looters that the owner left. The sign on the right is the update on his status as of September 4.

Evacuees being unloaded from a military personell truck near our Mobile Canteen unit.

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Going to New Orleans

Dear Readers,

I won’t be blogging for the next few days because I’m going to New Orleans. I’m leading a group of students from the Criswell College to a staging area in Baton Rouge where we will link up with Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief. We will man a Salvation Army Mobile Canteen and will be responsible for distributing 300,000 meals per day in New Orleans.

The last several days, I’ve been blogging a lot about the political side of the Hurrican Katrina tragedy because I think the news coverage has been reflexively condemning of federal authorities. I am happy to say that I think that that tide is turning. In any case, I am hoping to have something very different to write about when I get back. I hope to tell some of the story of our trip after we return because I don’t think that I will have access to the internet while I am there (and I don’t think I’d have time to write anyway).

I would greatly appreciate your prayers.

Sincerely,
Denny

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State of Louisiana Prevented Red Cross from Providing Relief to New Orleans Superdome

This is an unbelievable story being reported by Major Garrett of FOX News. The following is from Hugh Hewitt’s website:

“The Fox News Channel’s Major Garrett was just on my show extending the story he had just reported on Brit Hume’s show: The Red Cross is confirming to Garrett that it had prepositioned water, food, blankets and hygiene products for delivery to the Superdome and the Convention Center in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, but were blocked from delivering those supplies by orders of the Louisiana state government, which did not want to attract people to the Superdome and/or Convention Center. Garrett has no paper trail yet, but will follow up on his verbal confirmation from sources at the highest levels of the Red Cross.”

You can read a transcript of Hugh Hewitt’s interview with Major Garrett here. According to Garrett, the Red Cross is unequivocally confirming his story.

If this story is accurate, it changes the entire political calculus. It would show that the tragic aftermath of Katrina was not due to a failure of federal authorities, but to a failure of authorities in the State of Louisiana.

(HT: Justin Taylor)

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Mayor of New Orleans Had Responsibility To Evacuate

The city of New Orleans had a set of emergency procedures in place before Katrina hit that pertain to such events as catastrophic Hurricanes. The document is titled: “City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.” This document outlines the plan that the city is to follow in case of an emergency evacuation. It says the following:

“Conduct of an actual evacuation will be the responsibility of the Mayor of New Orleans in coordination with the Director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, and the OEP Shelter Coordinator . . . Transportation will be provided to those persons requiring public transportation from the area . . . The evacuation must be completed before the arrival of gale force winds.”

The plan also puts the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness in charge of providing shelters for those citizens who need to evacuate.

“Emergency shelter operations are the responsibility of the Office of Emergency Preparedness Shelter Coordinator. Shelters are provided by the Orleans Parish School Board, while manager training and support activities and supplies are provided by the Office of Emergency Preparedness . . . Shelter demand is currently under review by the Shelter Coordinator. Approximately 100,000 Citizens of New Orleans do not have means of personal transportation.”

A supplement to this plan titled Louisiana Emergency Operations Plan (supplement 1A) states the following:

“The primary means of hurricane evacuation will be personal vehicles. School and municipal buses, government-owned vehicles and vehicles provided by volunteer agencies may be used to provide transportation for individuals who lack transportation and require assistance in evacuating.”

The State of Louisiana Emergency Operations Plan also addresses the issue of authority in the event of a disaster situation:

“The governor of Louisiana has the ultimate responsibility for direction and control over state activities related to emergencies and disasters” (source).

What is clear from these documents is that the Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans had the primary responsibility to evacuate and shelter the citizens of New Orleans.

For some reason, these responsibilities are not being accurately reported in the news coverage of the disaster. I don’t think that the reporting should focus on who’s to blame at this point. That can wait until we have a more accurate account of the response from city, state, and federal officials. But what this does demonstrate is that reporters should cease and desist from framing this disaster as a failure of federal authorities. Such an assumption is wrong on its face.

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John Roberts to Be Nominated As Chief Justice

CNN is reporting that President Bush will nominate John Roberts to succeed Rehnquist as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

By appointing someone from the outside, the President ensures that there will be only two confirmation battles, not three (If he would have nominated a sitting justice to be chief justice, the senate would have to confirm the promotion as well as the filling of the two remaining vacancies).

When she announced her retirement, Sandra Day O’Connor’s made her retirement contingent upon the President’s appointment of her replacement. In her resignation letter, she wrote: “This is to inform you of my decision to retire from my position as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, effective upon the nomination and confirmation of my successor.”

Thus she will remain on the court until President Bush names her replacement. President Bush must move quickly to nominate here replacement. Otherwise, the confirmation process will become more difficult as we move into the mid-term election season.

I hope the President moves quickly.

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Mayor of New Orleans Blames the Louisiana Governor

I just watched Soledad O’Brien interview New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin on CNN. She pressed him on whether he bore some responsibility for the tragedy at the Superdome and at the convention center.

Mayor Nagin responded that when Bush came to Louisiana, Bush offered to centralize the chain-of-command so that the feds could take over rescue and relief from Governor Kathleen Blanco. According to Nagin, Bush was ready to move immediately, but Blanco said she needed twenty-four hours to think about it.

Mayor Nagin was extremely frustrated with Governor Blanco to say the least. According to Nagin, while she was stalling, people were dying. This is quite a different picture than has been painted in the media thus far where everyone has been blaming the federal government for the slowness of the relief efforts. Here’s a transcript of the interview:

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: And what the state was doing, I don’t freaking know. But I’ll tell you, I am pissed. It wasn’t adequate. And then the president and the governor sat down. We were in Air Force One. I said, Mr. President, Madam Governor, you two have to get in sync. If you don’t get in sync, more people are going to die.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What day did you go? When did you say that? When did you say…

NAGIN: Whenever Air Force One was here.

O’BRIEN: OK.

NAGIN: And that this was after I called him on the telephone two days earlier. And I said, Mr. President and Madam Governor, you two need to get together on the same page, because the lack of coordination, people are dying in my city.

O’BRIEN: That’s two days ago you said?

NAGIN: They both shook. I don’t know the exact day. They both shook their head and said, yes. I said great. I said everybody in this room is getting ready to leave. There was senators and his cabinet people. You name it. There were generals. I said everybody right now, we’re leaving. These two people need to sit in a room together and make a doggone decision right now.

O’BRIEN: And was that done?

NAGIN: The president looked at me. I think he was a little surprised. He said, no, you guys stay here, we’re going to another section of the plane and we’re going to make a decision. He called me in that office after that. He said, Mr. Mayor, I offered two options to the governor. I said — and I don’t remember exactly what they were, two options. I was ready to move today. The governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision.

O’BRIEN: You’re telling me the president told you the governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision?

NAGIN: Yes.

O’BRIEN: Regarding what, bringing troops in?

NAGIN: Whatever they had discussed. As far as what the chain — I was advocating a clear chain of command so that we could get resources flowing in the right places.

O’BRIEN: And the governor said, no, according to the…

NAGIN: She said that she needed 24 hours to make a decision. It would have been great if we could have left Air Force One, walked outside and told the world that we had this all worked out. It didn’t happen and more people died. [source]

I am happy to see that Soledad O’brien acknowledged after the interview that there was plenty of blame to go around. She is the first reporter I’ve seen on CNN who has given any serious credence to the idea that anyone other than the Bush administration is to blame. But there’s really nothing else she could say after the startling revelation from Mayor Nagin.

Soledad and the other CNN correspondents looked quite surprised as Mayor Nagin’s account really didn’t seem to confirm their working supposition—that Bush alone is to blame.

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Disappointed with Russert, et al.

It’s not just the partisans who are rushing to judgment about who to blame for the catastrophic aftermath of Katrina. The clear thrust of mainstream media reporting has been to lay the blame for the crisis in New Orleans at the feet of the Bush administration.

The default assumption in the media appears to be that if there was a failure of rescue operations, then the failure was a federal one. No reporter that I have seen has come up with a line of questioning that would insinuate a failure on the part of the Louisiana governor or the New Orleans mayor (I’ve mainly been watching CNN, NBC, and MSNBC’s coverage). The questions seem to be pushing toward an indictment of President Bush.

This situation is rather remarkable given that we know so little about the big picture at this point. We do know that an evacuation of the city of New Orleans before a storm was the job of state and local officials. How is it that the mainstream media see the failure to evacuate as a failure at the federal level?

We may find out at some point that something went awry with the federal response, but why do reporters just assume that to be the case when it seems like the default position would be to see this as a shortcoming of the state and local governments? It appears that the media intends to treat the Bush administration as guilty until proven innocent.

Today’s episode of NBC’s “Meet the Press” is emblematic of what’s been happening in most of the coverage that I’ve seen up to this point. Tim Russert grilled the Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, while a Louisiana state officials got off fairly easily.

Tim Russert:

“Mr. Secretary, are you or anyone who reports to you contemplating resignation? . . .

“Well, many Americans believe now is the time for accountability. The Republican governor of Massachusetts said, ‘We are an embarrassment to the world.’ The Republican senator from Louisiana, David Vitter, said that you deserve a grade of F, flunk. How would you grade yourself? . . .

“People were stunned by a comment the president of the United States made on Wednesday, Mr. Secretary. He said, ‘I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.’ How could the president be so wrong, be so misinformed? . . .

“Your Web site says that your department assumes primary responsibility for a national disaster. If you knew a hurricane 3 storm was coming, why weren’t buses, trains, planes, cruise ships, trucks provided on Friday, Saturday, Sunday to evacuate people before the storm? . . .” (source)

The secretary tries to explain to Tim Russert how disaster relief works under the law.

Secretary Chertoff:

“Tim, the way that emergency operations act under the law is the responsibility and the power, the authority, to order an evacuation rests with state and local officials. The federal government comes in and supports those officials” (source).

But Tim does not even acknowledge the secretary’s answer or that responsibility for any failures could be distributed outside the federal government.

Tim goes on to allow Mike Tidwell (a global warming activist and campaigner for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race, which is not disclosed by Russert) to grandstand about how George Bush is responsible not only for the aftermath of Katrina, but also for similar environmental hazards in all U.S. coastal cities.

“But the really final big story here is that the Bush administration is failing on another level to hear warning signs and take credible evidence that there’s dire problems. The Bush administration itself–its own studies say that we will in this century turn every coastal city in America into a New Orleans. Why? Because we got three feet of subsidence, sinking,in south Louisiana in the 20th century because of the levees. Right now, because of global climate change, the Bush administration’s own studies say we will get between one and three feet of sea level rise worldwide because of our use of fossil fuels.

“The big, big, big take-away message here is: New Orleans is the future of Miami, New York, San Diego, every coastal city in the world, because whether the land sinks three feet and you get a bowl in a hurricane like this, or sea level rises worldwide, same problem. We have got to address this energy problem that David mentioned. We have an irrational energy problem” (source).

Tim offers no challenge whatsoever to Tidwell, even though Tidwell admits that opportunities to address dangers in New Orleans go back to 1995 when Bill Clinton was president. That Tidwell lays the blame solely at the feet of the Bush administration and not to the previous Democrat administration shows his partisan bent.

That political opportunists have politicized this calamity is unconscionable. That the mainstream media facilitates this politicization is even worse because they have such an impact on shaping public opinion.

I am hoping that a clear picture will emerge in the coming days. Until then, I remain disappointed with Tim Russert and others like him who are jumping on the blame-Bush bandwagon. I think the wiser course would be to reserve judgment until we understand what really has happened. There will be plenty of time to analyze the failures that may have occurred at all levels of government—local, state, and federal.

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