Why you should care
Because you should trust no one.
New Orleans is an unusual town. A curious meld of the Caribbean, the French and the American South has made the city home to jazz, blues and Voodoo, Cajun and Creole cultures, and no real desire to resolve any of it one way or another.
“I love this city.” Peering through wire-rimmed glasses, the cab driver watched me in his rearview mirror. “And I’ve lived all over the world.” He was originally from Amman, Jordan, and had traveled extensively through the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia, but it was something about the hothouse of New Orleans that drew him, made him want to stay.
It was June 9, 2005, and I was heading to a hotel off of Bourbon Street. At the hotel I bid the driver adieu, never to see him again, though my thoughts have returned to him often, without a doubt because the city’s adopted son was swallowed up by the miserable memory of everything that unfolded two and a half months later: Hurricane Katrina.
The August 2005 storm — which made landfall 14 years ago this week — and its aftermath saw almost 1,900 people dead and about $125 billion in damages not just across New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana but also Alabama and Mississippi.
Sanford saw banks that had been “looted.” Not just cash drawers yanked open but also vaults broken into using what could have only been industrial equipment.
How you feel about the tragedy depends on what you remember. Race, politics, religion, the usual suspects, along with America’s continuing but publicly undeclared class war, all congealed around the sunk swamp of New Orleans for eight days straight. Were the people shown on TV grabbing items from stores survivors or looters? Were the people posted up on their rooftops with shotguns vigilantes or home-as-castle patriots? Were they all just “crisis actors”?
Then, in quick succession, Anderson Cooper, George W. Bush, Kanye West, rapper David Banner shipping in water on his own dime, people dead at the Superdome. Another news cycle, lessons learned and now something we commemorate, even if uncomfortably.
Two years after Katrina, I interviewed a bona fide badass. Chris Sanford has a military background and is a mixed martial artist. Right after Katrina, he was hired by a Blackwater-esque firm for “product retention” purposes. Sanford and his colleagues weren’t ragtag suburban warriors with sidearms, but a well-equipped and organized bunch dispatched to defend real estate, mostly large hotels, and whatever else people serious enough to have hired them wanted protected.
“We pulled some guy off a roof,” Sanford said. “We rappel in and we get this fool and he’s shooting at rescue workers. I asked him why he was shooting at rescue workers and his response was, ‘Because they had a green boat.’ A green boat. This is not what was written about. It was chaos like I’d never seen before.” No small statement for a man who had seen action in the Gulf.
“You know how on the news they always showed people ‘looting’?” Sanford looked at me steadily. He was 5-foot-9, about 210 pounds, pushing 50, but still in what anyone would consider fighting shape. “Well,” he continued, “that’s not what I saw.”
And then he laid it out. He had seen banks that had been “looted.” Not just cash drawers yanked open but also vaults broken into using what could have only been industrial equipment like forklifts and cutting torches. Equipment unlikely to be used by desperate people. Sanford saw the aftermath in bank after bank after bank. Maybe that’s how you get to $125 billion so fast.
“One day we pull up on some guys using one of those double-decker car trailers that you see at automobile dealerships,” Sanford said. The other crew wore black tactical gear and it wasn’t clear whether they were rescuing luxury cars or requisitioning them. When Sanford and his crew of 10 asked, the crew of 20 swung their guns around by way of answer. Turns out that they were cops. New Orleans cops.
Sanford figured getting shot to death over some insurance imbroglio was not how he wanted to go out, a thought apparently shared by his crew members. “I was supposed to be there for 90 days, but after 15, I said, ‘So long, I’m leaving,’” he says. But, being the military man he was, his actions nagged at him. He was working for a private company, and as a privateer he was totally within his rights to do what he did, but still it rankled.
“There was just no way to control the place, and there was no sign at all that there would be.” Sanford shrugged. “So you get tired of having the bad guys shooting at you, the good guys shooting at you and the crazy guys shooting at you … life’s too short.” Fourteen years later, after the Army Corps of Engineers has pumped billions of dollars into civil engineering a hurricane protection system, New Orleans endures. It’s just too cool and weird not to.
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