The Fifth of Katrina – The People
It will be some time before I am able to afford Spike’s sequel, which premiered this week on HBO. However, I did some looking around on my own regarding the fate of Katrina survivors whose struggles touched me.
Milvirtha Hendricks lived four more years after this iconic photograph was taken of her by AP photographer Eric Gay during the height of the immediate aftermath of Katrina. It had been raining, and people who were sitting outside of the Convention Center were given blankets to shelter under. Milvirtha was given a blanket, and thus entered cultural history.
In a subsequent interview conducted in Texas a year after the catastrophe, Hendricks said that she remembered little of what happened during those awful days, which in some ways is a blessing. Some things you’ve witnessed may make you go mad; it’s best not to revisit it, or even say that you remember.
Later reunited with other members of her family, Milvirtha Hendricks died in Houston, TX on July 20, 2009 at the age of 89 in relative quiet and anomymity. Her body was brought back to New Orleans for burial. She is survived by seven of her 10 children.
Donnell Herrington was shot by a white vigilante in Algiers Point, in an enclave noted for its insularity and circle-the-wagons mentality. When New Orleans was drowning, a few hundred residents decided to go over to Algiers to higher ground. At this, some of these whites decided to band together with forty weapons to protect their part of town. In particular, they were going to shoot any would-be “looters,” meaning blacks, that they saw.
Herrington, now 32, was on his way with his cousin Marcel Alexander, then 17, and a friend, Chris Collins, then 18, to an evacuation site at the Algiers Point ferry. They had spent days helping members of their families, especially the aged, to get them food and water, waiting things out, and figuring out how to get them to safety. Then, by word of mouth, an opportunity arose at the site of the Algiers Point Ferry terminal. Some buses had been brought to bring people to dry ground. In order to get to the ferry, though, they had to walk past a portion of the white area of Algiers Point.
Then, completely without warning, Herrington and his companions were riddled with buckshot by a man later identified as Roland Bourgeois, now 47. Herrington caught the brunt of Bourgeois’ attack, which nearly severed his jugular vein, and left him with pockmarked wounds all over his torso. Bourgeois, who later left for–where else?–Mississippi, was one of those self-appointed Algiers Point residents who was going to defend himself and his mother against attack.
[Initially,] Bourgeois told FBI agents that he didn’t shoot anybody. More than that, he told the FBI that he wasn’t even aware that anybody had been shot in Algiers Point. However, Bourgeois’ mother, Pam Pitre, in an apparent attempt to defend him, told journalists in April that he did indeed shoot at three black men. Her son told her the men he fired at “looked like gang members” and were “arrogant,” Pitre said. Bourgeois was trying to scare the men, she told reporters, not kill anybody.
Bourgeois will have to explain how he didn’t even know there had been a shooting in Algiers Point but his mother knew enough about it to say he was justified in shooting three men.
Herrington and his companions were merely on a public street, talking to each other about what they planned to do after they were evacuated. They were unarmed. They hadn’t seen anyone until Bourgeois popped up out of nowhere and nearly ended their lives.
In the hospital, Herrington could not even get New Orleans police to listen to his story of being bushwhacked. As he told it, the cops seemed to feel that if he had been shot, it was probably his fault. It wasn’t until Spike Lee’s first documentary about New Orleans, When the Levees Broke, that Herrington was able to voice to a national audience what many in New Orleans knew: that there were killings and shootings in the city of whites against blacks.
Subsequent investigations by The Nation, Frontline, and the Times Picayune and ProPublica (and given to the Justice Department) have revealed that not only civilian vigilantes but New Orleans police were involved. Police have been implicated in the deaths of Danny Brumfield, a 45-year-old grandfather whose murder by car was witnessed by his own family members. He was trying to flag down a NOPD police cruiser to come to the aid of a screaming woman. Instead, Brumfield was run down twice by the police cruiser and then shot in the back to make sure he was dead. Henry Glover, a 41-year old father of four who was trying to get food and water for his family, was shot by one police officer, finished off by another officer, and his body set ablaze in an abandoned car by other police officers to cover it up.
You may have also heard this week that an “order” was passed along to officers of the NOPD to shoot to kill any looters, and to “take back the city.” The fact is that no official order was ever given by any civilian authority (like Mayor Nagin, for instance) for individual police officers to take the law into their own hands. Despite the confusion and disorder, New Orleans was never even under martial law.
The Nation came up with a damning video of the Algiers Point vigilantes celebrating after Federal troops came to restore order in New Orleans. The full video had been going around gun-nut, survivalist, racist and other right-wing sites since the catastrophe. These people were actually praised by the news media–Cox News in particular–for protecting their own against “lawlessness.” There was no lawlessness–it was only the kind practiced by the vigilantes.
At a barbecue, they bragged openly about shooting blacks–although another word was used at the time for blacks. Wayne Janak, who recently moved from Chicago to Algiers, boasted that because of his exploits, he was now “a true Southerner.” One woman said that she had called a relative in Illinois who rejoiced with her that they were finally shooting n_____s. WDSU TV interviewed a man who claimed to have helped shoot 38 people and gave their bodies to the Coast Guard.
Some of the gunmen prowling Algiers Point were out to wage a race war, says one woman whose uncle and two cousins joined the cause. A former New Orleanian, this source spoke to me anonymously because she fears her relatives could be prosecuted for their crimes. “My uncle was very excited that it was a free-for-all — white against black — that he could participate in,” says the woman. “For him, the opportunity to hunt black people was a joy.”
Since the events at Algiers Point, Donnell Herrington has had to bury his grandfather. Again at the wrong place at the wrong time, Herrington was at work when he was struck in the leg from a stray bullet during a shootout at a truck stop, which probably resulted from a robbery. The bullet came from an AK-47, said Frontline, and his leg was so damaged that it had to be amputated. He is disabled.
“Life has been rough with all of this going on. With Katrina, the shooting, my grandfather, my leg and then my seven-year-old daughter is impacted, too,” said Mr. Herrington, who is currently producing music.
Concludes Harrington, “I’m a man of faith, so eventually I knew what they did to us would be brought to the light. Now I just hope that the government does something with the information that has been gathered.”
Vinnie Pervel, Wayne Janak, and Nathan Roper, the three white vigilantes from the video who identified themselves and bragged of their actions in the aftermath of Katrina have not been brought up on charges. However, there are no statutes of limitation on capital offenses like murder or on hate crimes, as Roland Bourgeois and his mother are finding out.
Roland J. Bourgeois Jr., gravely ill and confined to a wheelchair, entered a not guilty plea to five counts of crimes.
Bourgeois, 47, who is white, allegedly used racial epithets and shot three black men as part of a vigilante patrol of his Algiers Point neighborhood on Sept. 1, 2005.
A federal grand jury indicted him last month on charges of conspiracy to commit a hate crime, committing a hate crime with a deadly weapon and with intent to kill, making false statements and obstruction of justice. He faces a possible sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Today, Bourgeois is a broken man who allegedly relies on his mother to dress him and take him to the bathroom. He lives with her in Columbia, Miss.
His doctor testified Thursday that Bourgeois has hepatitis C, anemia, advanced liver disease, a broken arm, a crushed spine and several infections. Dr. Michael Friley said Bourgeois is “mentally incompetent” and estimated he has between six months and a year to live.
“He’s at high risk of sudden death,” Friley said. “My thought, looking at him now, he needs to be in hospice.”
An an orthopedic surgeon testified that Bourgeois needs surgery on his broken arm and damaged lower back, but would not be able to live through such a procedure.
Asked what would happen if Bourgeois was jailed, Dr. Ralph Gessner replied: “He’s going to die in jail.”
Bourgeois sat through the hearing slumped in a wheelchair. In the few instances in which he was required to speak, his words came out in mumbles and moans.
As black Christians say, god don’t love ugly. As the Buddhists say, what comes around, goes around. It’s only a matter of time that this kind of ugly catches up on these people, especially the unnamed and unknown vigilantes still walking around free.
Herbert Gettridge is a master plasterer. His story is here. In 2002, he and other plasterers, blacksmiths, woodworkers and brick masons were spotlighted in a special exhibition, “Raised to the Trade, Creole Building Arts of New Orleans,” which sought to raise awareness of the city’s artisans and their contributions to architectural excellence. Gettridge in particular is noted for constructing three homes that had been praised by architectural critics for artistic innovation, singularity and beauty.
Like I say, I did it all, the cornice work in the French Quarter . . . ever been in the French Quarter and look at all that fancy work there? This is what I do. Along Canal Street, some of the buildings on the outside have decorations; that’s what I do. I specialize in that. This here [flat work], I do that when I didn’t have anything else to do. But any kind of decorations, let the architect draw it on a piece of paper and give it to me, and I’ll put it up there.
Herbert Gettridge was also emblematic of the black middle class in New Orleans, who moved up not by shuffling papers but working with their hands, often by necessity. He and his wife had nine children as well as those three houses that he owned and rented out.
However, in the year of Katrina, Herbert, then 81, and his wife Lydia, along with some of their now-grown children, left their home at 5027 North Roman Street in the Lower Ninth Ward. They went to stay at the downtown Holiday Inn for safety. When the levees gave way, they left New Orleans by car, a luxury those at the Dome and the Convention Center did not have. They drove first to Shreveport for safety, and later settled in Appalousas, Louisiana. Other family members scattered to Baton Rouge and to Galveston, TX.
Eventually, as Lydia’s health faltered after all the moving about from place to place and the worry, both Herbert and Lydia were brought to Madison, WI in the care of their daughter and granddaughter Cheryl and Cyntrelle Steele. In late November 2005, though, Herbert resolved to return to Louisiana. At one point, he commuted forty miles back and forth from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to see about the survival of his three houses. This went on for four months.
By mid-2006, Gettridge had gutted his own home with the help of volunteers from Common Ground. From then on, through thick and thin, he lived in the frame of that house, rebuilding it himself or with the occasional help of others; often times with no bed, no electricity, no heat, no protection, and no neighbors. Gettridge also rebuilt the house without the support of the controversial Road Home Program, which awarded the Gettridges their check seven months after they moved back into their house.
The men physically rebuilt their homes, but the actions of women—unseen because their pain was too private—allowed this family to survive. While the Gettridge men set up camp in trailers, their spouses and sisters, often living alone, reared children, fought with insurance adjusters, and in general stayed on top of the myriad shifting bureaucratic battles that have marked the city’s first few years of rebuilding.
Herbert Gettridge’s daughter Cheryl, a former insurance adjuster herself, cared for his ailing wife, Lydia, in Madison, Wisconsin, while she tracked insurance claims for the entire clan. Another daughter, Gale, bought a house in nearby Baton Rouge so family members would have somewhere to stay while they rebuilt. Meanwhile, she studied the shifting rules of the Road Home Small Rental Homeowners’ program for the several rental properties she and her husband own. She also cared for a son and a grandson, each coping with post-traumatic stress in different, emotionally exhausting ways. A third daughter could barely talk to us about the trauma of rebuilding without bursting into tears. “I did everything right, and now I’m in so much debt I can’t ever see a way to pay it all off,” she said. Mental health professionals assured me that she spoke for at least half of the city, black and white.
Unfortunately, Gettridge’s story, as chronicled in the PBS documentary, The Old Man and The Storm, did not exactly have a happy ending. Though he had earned the right to stay in New Orleans through his sweat, love and effort, it had changed. When Lydia Gettridge, who had been living in a Wisconsin nursing home, grudgingly came home from quiet and new friends, she did not like the new house. She remembered all the wonderful things that she had loved about the old house, with all her things around her, and the new house seemed alien, bare bones, strange. Eventually she grew acclimated to the house and her surroundings, but she is losing her short-term memory. Lydia Gettridge, as of February 2009, must still get around on a walker.
Furthermore, when Herbert went to celebrate Mardi Gras with members of his old marching organization, the youngsters who had taken over the parade practically blew him away with their very loud, very new and very wild way of playing and marching. He went away, disgusted and disoriented at what he felt was the lack of respect for what he remembered, and at that the new generation had refused to incorporate the old and the new to make a place for him.
Additionally, in 2008, the city demolished one of his three homes, despite his efforts to obtain landmark status for the building.
If Herbert and Lydia Gettridge are still alive and among us, they would be nearly ninety. The story of Herbert, Lydia and their family is here. I hope that they are all in relatively good health and celebrating this fifth year after Katrina in better circumstances.