The Silent Season of Eldridge Recasner

Earlier that week, a hurricane had formed out in the Gulf of Mexico; now it was building in monstrous and unparalleled strength. Eldridge Recasner wasn't aware of this. It was last August, and the former Husky and NBA player was about to blithely mow the lawn of his Seattle-area home while Hurricane Katrina descended upon his beloved hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana.

"I was gonna cut my grass, and I always log onto," said Recasner recently. "It was a Friday night and I will never forget it. When I logged on, there's this giant hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, and I was like, `Jesus Christ, let me call my Mom back home.'"

Recasner's Mom had already fled, as had dozens of family members and friends. He felt concern, but also solace in that precautions were being taken. Having grown up in New Orleans, he had experienced hurricanes; he was familiar with the regional mentality of not panicking, and of riding out the turbulence. Recasner began to panic that Friday night, however, when he tuned into KOMO-TV's 11PM newscast.

"I was watching (meteorologist) Steve Pool," said Recasner. "And he put it in perspective for people out here in the Northwest. When he superimposed the hurricane over a map of the Pacific Northwest, it covered the entire region. That's when I knew that this was going to be devastating."

When Katrina hit land, its rampaging girth and apocalyptic force caused devastation over 100 miles from the eye of the storm. It obliterated the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama, as well as Louisiana. Levees separating Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans were breached, ultimately flooding 80 percent of the city. Most ravaged was Recasner's old neighborhood, The Lower Ninth Ward. The flooding decimated this section of town via two large breaches in the Industrial Canal flood protection system. The resulting surge of water smashed into buildings and knocked them from their foundations. It overturned cars and trucks. The torrents launched a sizeable barge from the canal and propelled it into the neighborhood, smashing to pieces everything in its way. The rising floodwaters trapped people in their attics, and engulfed and drowned dogs and cats. Nearly 75 percent of the 1,603 human fatalities occurred to people sixty years and older who were limited in their mobility.

Helicopters hovered above the city, from which the television networks were providing a bird's eye view of the devastation. Recasner blinked at his TV in disbelief, trying to discern which part of the city was being shown.

"I wasn't sure," he said. "I couldn't tell it from any other neighborhood, because all I saw was rooftops. It was hard to distinguish where it was until I could see a distinguishing landmark. As the camera panned around there was the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, which leads to my neighborhood. When I saw it, that's when my heart fell, because I realized that this area I was watching was my neighborhood under fifteen feet of water."

For the next few days, Recasner was catatonic. He was glued to the TV, and witnessing horrors such as seeing his aunt being rescued from her own rooftop by boat. "She later said when the water rushed into her house, she went into the attic," he said. "Then she had to kick herself out of the attic to get to the rooftop. She waited for TWO DAYS to be rescued." Recasner then extrapolated on what he saw as a deeper meaning.

"People in Seattle have a hard time grasping the racism thing," he said. "It exists out here, but it's not blatantly obvious. When you look at a group of black people being left on the freeway for two to five days, that says enough in itself. I will never feel the same about America. When I look at people, my people-- I had some people I knew personally on the freeway-- and I am looking at that scene and wondering, 'HOW LONG ARE THEY GOING TO LEAVE THEM OUT THERE?' If we can be somewhere overseas in 24-48 hours, I don't understand how we can't get to one of our own cities in a timely fashion. We're the United States of America. We're the most powerful nation on earth. It hurts me. I am going to be honest with you."

While not all critics share Recasner's belief that racism was at the root of the delayed responses, criticism nevertheless was targeted toward the local, state and federal levels of government. Mayor Ray Nagin was hammered for failing to implement the New Orleans Disaster Plan-- which stated that school buses should be used to evacuate citizens that couldn't get out themselves. Nagin had also instructed citizens to head to a local convention center, but then failed to provide even basic provisions. Critics blasted Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco after she rejected a September 2nd proposed legal memorandum from the Bush Administration asking her to request a Federal takeover of the evacuation process in New Orleans. Blanco also delayed in activating the Louisiana National Guard. President Bush was widely condemned for remaining at his Texas ranch for two days after the flooding, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was slow in responding to the disaster and seemed devoid of effective leadership. Tragic and perplexing situations occurred, such as FEMA officials turning away trucks containing donated goods from Wal-Mart.

A week into the disaster, Fox News's Shephard Smith was live from the Houston Astrodome, where thousands of evacuees were arriving and thousands of others were encamped upon cots. Recasner was watching this, when suddenly he thought he saw his missing uncle in the background. Right then, Recasner said goodbye to his wife and kids and left Seattle on a flight bound for Texas. Upon reaching Houston, he rushed to the Astrodome, determined to locate his uncle amid the swarm of humanity. He found no trace of his relative. Recasner proceeded to drive to nine other shelters, including those in Dallas and San Antonio. A friend of Recasner's was simultaneously scouring the shelters in Austin, and he too came up empty. Recasner thought his uncle was dead-- but later on, he received word that he had been relocated to Fresno, California.

While in Houston, Recasner got in touch with fellow former NBA player Kenny Smith. Smith was busy orchestrating widespread relief efforts, saying he wished to 'make a dent' amid the catastrophe.

"I owe Kenny Smith big time," said Recasner. "Kenny got the NBA guys to donate tons of stuff. Kenny gave me access to his warehouse, and I got at least $100,000 worth of stuff that I was able to give away to 70 or 80 people that I knew. Gatorade, soap, toothbrushes, pants, shoes, all that kind of stuff. I loaded up a U-Haul and drove over to my sister's house (in Houston) and I called everyone I knew who had been forced to evacuate, and I distributed it from there."

At that same time, millions of other Americans were donating time and money in astounding numbers. By September 2nd, five days after the flooding began, $404 million had already been given to various charitable organizations (in time, this number would grow to $3.4 billion, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University). Hundreds of churches opened their arms to evacuees and provided shelter and support. Thousands of college students donated their labor to help clear debris in and around New Orleans. President Bush announced that Congress had approved $54.1 billion in aid to help rebuild.

In early November, two months after the disaster struck, Recasner again left Seattle and headed for Texas. Upon landing, he drove to his sister's place in Houston, where his sixty-year old Mom had been staying since she fled Louisiana. Together, he and his Mom began the six-hour drive home to New Orleans, to see what was left of her house after Hurricane Katrina (and the subsequent Hurricane Rita, which had struck a month later). Recasner and his sister had bought this house for their Mom, just three years earlier.

"We got into New Orleans at about midnight," he said. "Once we crossed into Orleans Parish (entering The Lower Ninth Ward), suddenly it was pitch-black. I couldn't see a thing. No power, nothing. Unbelievable. The next day, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Tree debris and garbage thirty to forty feet in the air. Houses in the middle of the street. I had thought that I had a grasp on it from watching TV, but that didn't do it justice. Neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood… just devastated."

The brick home from which Recasner's Mom fled had sat submerged for five weeks in six feet of water, before finally drying out. As they exited the car, the stench of the neighborhood's decay filled the air. The front yard was vacuous and debris-strewn. Recasner ambled alongside his apprehensive Mom as they advanced toward the front door.

"It was like a war zone in Iraq or something," he said. "Everything was dead-- the grass, the plants. From the outside, it didn't look like the damage was that bad, but when I opened that front door with my Mom, we couldn't save a thing. Nothing. Not a blanket. Not a picture. She is going to be sixty-one years old in May, and she lost a whole lifetime of stuff. It was devastating. Refrigerator turned over on its back. Dining room table completely collapsed. I hit the interior door with my hand, and it just crumbled. I pretty much gutted out the house with my hand. The sheet rock just crumbled. Every house in the neighborhood was like that. We had insurance, but most people didn't. The neighborhood is gone, and it ain't coming back.

"In my opinion, I don't think this was all natural disaster," he added. "I think some of these levees were breached on purpose. There were certain parts of the city like downtown and the French Quarter where there was no damage. It was bone dry. I don't see how that can happen. I feel in my heart that this was done. I had workers from FEMA telling me that the levees were blown open. They said they saw divers coming up. They told me not to say their name to anyone, or they might get killed.

"Because when they break the levees on the side where I lived, it leads directly away from downtown," he said. "It was the lesser of two evils. There are 350 miles of levee systems around the city of New Orleans, and there were two main breaks and they were both in the poorest neighborhood. They knew that the whole city was going to flood, so to save their money-maker, the downtown and French Quarter, they decided they needed to relieve pressure and break the levee near the poor section."

Recasner was asked who the "they" was that he was referring to.

"I don't know, I'm just throwing that out there," he said. "It's speculation as to what happened. I may be out of my mind, but that's how I feel in my heart. I ran into my insurance adjuster, with whom I had spoken with ten or fifteen times on the phone. I introduced myself. He said, 'WHAT ARE YOU DOING?' I told him that I was helping to gut my Mom's house. He said, 'WHAT ARE YOU DOING THAT FOR? GET YOUR MOM OUT OF THIS CITY!'

"I asked him why. He said, `Eldridge, people I've talked to said that they broke those levees. I don't know why it hasn't hit the media. Everybody (on the street) is talking about it. There's a whole lot of corruption going on in this city. We're going to give you guys full coverage. If I was you Eldridge, I would just buy my Mom a house somewhere else.'

"But that's home," said Recasner. "My Mom doesn't want to go somewhere else."

On November 2, 2005, the National Science Foundation released research findings, entitled 'The Preliminary Report on the Performance of the New Orleans Levee Systems in Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005'. A nation-wide group of researchers pooled their information and resources for the study. Investigative teams included scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Louisiana State University's Hurricane Research Center. They focused on securing 'perishable data' and making forensic observations from it. Their findings contradicted the beliefs of Recasner and many others in The Lower Ninth Ward. The report found that the storm surges produced by Hurricane Katrina resulted in numerous breaches. The end of the report concluded, "… these failures occurred at water levels below the tops of the floodwalls lining these canals. These three levee failures were likely caused by failures in the foundation soils underlying the levees."

One other aspect Recasner wished to discuss was the national media. He was stupefied by their portrayal of the calamity.

"I grew up in New Orleans," he said. "You saw those faces of the evacuees on TV. Everybody they showed on TV couldn't talk, were ignorant, and had gold teeth in their mouth. I did not see one person that looked like me on TV. I am a fair-skinned guy. I'm telling you, I'm from The Lower Ninth Ward, and there's a ton of people there that look like me, hundreds of thousands. The media decided to show only the worst of the worst. They just decided that these were the people they were going to interview. They put the twist on this-- they didn't interview anybody who was more civilized and well-spoken. I don't know why they twisted it like they did. And I'll be honest with you-- if I am someone else living in another part of the country, and I saw some of those people they interviewed, I'd say, `Well damn, maybe I wouldn't rush to rescue these fools either.' But not all the people down there look and talk like that. I'm from the worst area in the city, and I'm telling you that not all the people look and talk like that."

Now that eight months have passed since the colossal destruction of Hurricane Katrina, Eldridge Recasner looks upon life and America differently.

"I can't tell you why it happened, but it's left a real bad taste in my mouth," he said. "The bitterest pill for me to swallow is that now when I go to New Orleans, I have nowhere to stay. With the exception of one aunt, everyone I knew is gone elsewhere, and everything is destroyed. And the people in my neighborhood never had a voice. I just don't see my neighborhood coming back, or the city of New Orleans. Or it will be many years. It was the people that made it unique. Despite all the problems that the city had, the people were so genuine. But now they are mostly dispersed throughout the rest of the country.

"The one problem with the city is that it relies almost 100 percent on tourism," he added. "They don't have a Microsoft, Boeing, or Weyerhauser, to kick in and assist to get a city back on it's feet. They don't have that. The sad thing is, tourism is it. Oh, they'll get federal dollars, but the politicians have been stealing the money and haven't been putting it where it was supposed to be put. It's easy to say this in hindsight, but they had to know that this possibility existed and they didn't prepare for it. We're paying for it now."

Recasner falls silent for a moment. The former Husky concludes by saying, "It's been a real tough eight months. If you're a black American, or any American, how can you watch all that and not have a bad taste in your mouth? It's still in the pit of my stomach. Every time I think about it, I get depressed. It stabs right into the middle of my heart."
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories