Things Fall Apart

Dan Frosch/Santa Fe Reporter

The remains of a downtown New Orleans building smolder after a fire.

Santa Fe Reporter | September 14, 2005
It’s August 27, a sleepy late afternoon in Eldorado and Vince Galterio is in his garage, putting fresh covers on the seats of his prized 1971 Volkswagen bus. The warm northern New Mexico summer sun bakes the roof of his stucco framed home as he works, first on the seats and then on the driver’s side door hinges, which need a fresh coat of oil.

The 54-year-old New York transplant relishes these rare moments of calm. For the last 31 years, Galterio has been in the fire business, hiring firefighters first for the US Forest Service out of Silver City and then for the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Santa Fe where he came with his wife five years ago.

He spends nearly a month each year actually fighting fires himself as part of a crack team of New Mexico disaster workers deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency: FEMA.

Galterio’s life moves from one fire to the next. He meticulously documents each in a crumpled yellow pad he keeps with him at all times. Weekends are a welcome respite from time in the office or the logistical challenges of co-ordinating emergency crews during the sweat of a forest fire.

When the phone rings this particular afternoon, and he hears Bob Lineback’s voice on the other end, Galterio knows his weekend is over.

Lineback, a Wildland Fire Specialist for the National Parks Service, lives a few minutes from Galterio. He also is the Incident Commander of the New Mexico Incident Management Team of which Galterio is a part. FEMA typically deploys the team, drawn from national and local agencies, a few times a year not only to contain fires but also to clean up disasters such as the Columbia space shuttle crash in 2002.

Now, FEMA needs 22 of the 34-member team to rush to Camp Beauregard National Guard base in Pineville, La., as fast as they can.

There’s a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast and it looks bad.

“As soon as Bob called me, I knew this was going to be a different kind of assignment than we’d ever had,” Galterio, a small, gregarious man with a thick, greying mustache, says through traces of a New York accent. “I immediately started thinking what we’d be encountering once we got there.”

Nearly two weeks later, hunkered down in Louisiana, Galterio stares at a makeshift lot of 400 truck rigs from all over the country. The trucks overflow with food, water, diapers, ready-to-eat military rations and other supplies.

Since the team reached Pineville, the entire country has watched, horrified, Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast. By now, most Americans are familiar with the hurricane’s wrath: the billions of dollars in damage, the death count which will likely rise into the thousands, the boatloads of evacuees, most of them black, floating through New Orleans’ flooded streets.

Galterio and Lineback also have seen the reports on Katrina via the televisions at Beauregard. They’ve heard it from FEMA officials and listened to the war stories told by the truckers after they return from their routes deep inside New Orleans and surrounding parishes.

They are just two of many New Mexicans working around the clock amidst the US’s most devastating natural disaster. While their team scrambled to set up operations in Pineville, a convoy of 21 New Mexico State Police officers tore from Santa Fe toward New Orleans to help the overwhelmed Louisiana State Police rein in a city which had given way to anarchy.

During the same period, two local volunteers, David Luckey of Santa Fe and Irene Tohtsoni of Picuris Pueblo, traveled separately to the River Center in Baton Rouge to help the Red Cross absorb the thousands of evacuees fleeing New Orleans in Katrina’s wake.

Their stories reveal a world turned on its head, where a massive bureaucratic tangle demanded quick thinking in order to save lives; where law and order was sucked away by the toxic slurry from Lake Pontchartrain; and where the blood-stained scabs which mask this country’s racial divide were ripped off once again for the world to see.

The Shelter

It’s nearly curfew at the River Center in Baton Rouge and a line of weary evacuees snakes around the corner, waiting to pass through metal detectors manned by the National Guard so they can re-enter the Center’s two mammoth sleeping areas before 10 pm when the lights dim.

A last straggle of people, soap and towels in hand, emerge from makeshift showers set up in bright blue tents on the street. They make their way toward the Center’s entrance—through the stench of stale urine wafting from the column of portable bathrooms, past a puddle of vomit which sits stagnant on the sidewalk and by a line of Red Cross trailers whose generators groan mournfully through the night.

A dwindling crowd of police, National Guard, relief workers and evacuees mingle in a small smoking area near the showers. While law enforcement and military personnel chat cheerfully with each other, the evacuees—wizened, coal-colored grandfathers with light Louisiana eyes, thick-muscled young men with braided corn rows, heavyset mothers with diaper-clad babies tugging at their legs—sit completely silent.

David Luckey looks at the bizarre scene in front of him and pulls hard from an American Spirit cigarette, taking a moment to remove his cowboy hat to wipe the steady stream of sweat careening down his nose compliments of the relentless, heavy swamp heat of Baton Rouge.

“This place is unbelievable,” Luckey says. “Words just don’t do it justice.”

Luckey has been volunteering at the River Center, home to nearly 5,000 evacuees from New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, ever since he and his roommate Brian Rimpol arrived from Santa Fe on Tuesday, Sept. 6 after city levees crumbled and New Orleans slipped into chaos.

Moved by the endless news coverage on Katrina, the 35-year-old Birmingham native who runs a Santa Fe barbecue catering company, decided spur of the moment to set out for Baton Rouge and bring with him as many supplies as he could haul.

Olmsted Building Security Services lent Luckey an eight-foot enclosed trailer to hook up to his suburban. Erica Peters, daughter of noted art dealer Gerald Peters, donated eight crates of organic vegetables from her Farmers Market stand. Aztec Coffee gave Luckey more than 10 pounds of organic grounds. The Albuquerque Food Bank provided more than 1,000 pounds of water and baby diapers.

Luckey even called the office of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to ensure he’d be able to travel to Baton Rouge on Interstate 10, choked with police check points, evacuees and relief workers. The governor’s office told him to come and come quick, Luckey says.

When Luckey arrived at the River Center, he found the Red Cross completely overwhelmed by the deluge of evacuees from New Orleans and desperate for volunteers.

“People were crying, sleeping on the floor. Fathers with babies in their arms and no mothers. Mothers with babies in their arms and no fathers,” he says.

Luckey began doing everything he could think of to help—whether the Red Cross asked him or not. One minute he was helping find jump rope for a little girl, the next, scoring $70 from the Red Cross so a woman could buy methadone to quiet her heroin craving. One day he spent hours repairing wheelchairs. Another, Luckey split time between unloading supplies at the River Center’s loading dock and doling out cots to people so they wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor.

“I was surprised because there seemed to be all these cots sitting there and the Red Cross, for whatever reason, wasn’t handing them out,” Luckey says. “Once we started giving ’em to people, it was like I was Santa Claus.”

Throughout it all, Luckey listened.

“I spoke with a woman who’d hid in a tree for 17 hours, a guy whose wife was pulled out of his arms by the water…,” he says. “The main thing I kept hearing from people is ‘Why? Why didn’t the President unleash the might of this country’s resources in helping people right away? Why didn’t somebody have a plan ahead of time?’”

Working alongside Luckey, Irene Tohtsoni came from New Mexico because she also was riveted by what she’d seen on television. Tohtsoni, a tiny woman of 61 years is from the remote Picuris Pueblo and lives in the Four Corners area where she crafts native pottery to sell in Santa Fe. On Aug. 28, Tohtsoni was watching news coverage of a little boy who’d been washed away by Katrina.

“I just got in my car and drove to Farmington,” she says. “I knew the Red Cross would need me.”

From Farmington, she flew to Denver, then Phoenix and then Baton Rouge where this little woman helps hoist bundles of supplies off trucks well into the night, flanked by men twice her size and half her age. She sleeps with other volunteers at a local Baptist church in Lafayette, some 30 miles away.

“This one woman who’d left New Orleans told me that she sensed death was in the air, that all the animals had gone,” Tohtsoni says. “People here need my help.”

Inside the River Center, where Luckey and Tohtsoni do most of their work, the complex’s two arenas, which usually play host to the Louisiana State University basketball program, is a teeming city of people.

Wall-to-wall cots and tents line both arenas’ floors. Children dart out from between aid workers. A group of men, some in wheelchairs, huddle around a television playing CNN’s coverage of the latest FEMA press conference. Another man, a barber back in New Orleans, trims hair in the River Center’s lobby. Most people just sleep on their cots or lie awake, casting vacant stares at their new home and their new neighbors.

Upstairs, the Baton Rouge area Boys & Girls Club has started an elementary school so the facility’s estimated 1,000 children don’t get too far behind in their studies. But the volunteer faculty is short-staffed and the curriculum at this point consists of playing on a small patch of grass outside and coloring books. Only about 160 children are participating.

“It’s hard to see any organization here. It’s taken us nearly a week to get this off the ground,” says Boys & Girls Club Director of Development Julie Betz, as a young boy sleeps with his head down on a desk next to her.

Although it needs no pointing out, Luckey notes that the overwhelming majority of evacuees are black and the aid workers white. It is an unsettling dynamic to be sure, and one referred to by crusty CNN newsman Jack Cafferty as “the elephant in the room.”

“You really see the racial boundaries here,” Luckey says. “Many of these people were living in extreme poverty before Katrina even hit. The people who had money got out. The others are here.”

The morning of Sept. 9, members of the Congressional Black Caucus make an appearance to see the River Center for themselves and speak with evacuees.

US Rep. William Jefferson, D-Louisiana, listens as New Orleans local Adam Sylve, Jr. shouts that it’s impossible to make phone calls, the lines are too long to get back into the shelter and that police and the National Guard treat the evacuees like criminals.

In a different part of the arena, Marty Evans, the tall, blonde president of the American Red Cross, walks through the crowd surrounded by underlings, donned in a beige safari style vest. One white Red Cross volunteer eagerly shows pictures of his mixed-race baby to evacuees. They nod, a bit unsure of how to react.

“My wife, well, she’s black,” the worker blurts out. “She told me to come here and save her people.”

After a few minutes of wandering, talking and listening, the Congressional delegation and the Red Cross brass eventually meet up with each other, news cameras, police and Guard in tow. Most of the evacuees watch the spectacle from their cots. For them, it’s all too late.

Off to the side, US Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Florida, chats with some members of the media. When asked about how prominently race played into Katrina’s aftermath and the flow of evacuees to the River Center and other shelters, Brown interrupts and grabs this reporter’s arm:

“Race,” she says, “is always a factor.”

The Streets

At approximately 6 am, the morning of Sept. 8, a massive police convoy of nearly 100 cars, trucks and emergency vehicles pulls out of the Louisiana State Police headquarters, just down Government Street from the River Center, and sets off for New Orleans 60 miles away.

With lights flashing, a few sirens blaring and enough artillery to scare off any would-be looters, the convoy makes an impressive sight as it hurtles through the dimly lit Baton Rouge streets, twisting through a rush of early morning Hurricane traffic and onto Interstate 10.

The trail of shimmering, multi-colored squad cars includes ones with officers from the California Highway Patrol, Michigan State Police, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Champagne Police Swat Team (Illinois) and numerous other police agencies, including a team of 12 vehicles and 21 officers from the New Mexico State Police.

Major Daniel Lopez, a burly, soft-spoken career cop who heads the New Mexico State Police Narcotics Division out of Santa Fe, leads the local police contingent and is near the front of the convoy in a marked pickup truck, an AR-15 rifle propped up against the driver’s seat.

“We’ve gotten so many mixed reports of looting and destruction, we never really know what to expect,” Lopez says.

More than a week earlier, the team was culled by New Mexico State Police Chief Carlos Maldonado after it became clear the New Orleans Police Department couldn’t contain the violence and looting enveloping the city and the Louisiana State Police began reaching out to other departments across the country.

“We had people driving their units in from all over the state,” Lopez says. “Everyone wanted to help.”

After a mad rush to gather supplies, ammunition and service cars, the New Mexico convoy left Santa Fe on Sept. 4, stopping along the side of the road for a few hours of sleep one day, staying another night at an officer’s family’s home in Denton, Texas until they reached Baton Rouge on Monday, Sept. 5.

The next day, the New Mexico contingent was sworn in as Louisiana State Police “Special Officers,” and waited anxiously for their orders. But communication with local law enforcement was chaotic and the orders never came. Finally, on Sept. 7, the State Police were told to head into the city to help National Guard troops evacuate as many last remaining residents as they could. There they saw Katrina’s violent hand for themselves.

“It looks like a war zone,” Officer Brian Byrd, who’s based in Clovis and rides shotgun with Lopez, says.

The following day, with the same orders, the convoy speeds past National Guard checkpoints and into the city. Special Investigator Jay Blakeney, who works out of Albuquerque but was raised in Shreveport, La., pulls to the front so he can guide the officers to a staging area near the New Orleans Convention Center.

The city is hauntingly deserted, except for rumbling trucks overflowing with National Guard troops and speeding caravans of SUVs marked with FEMA, Department of Homeland Security and FBI emblems.

The New Mexico convoy passes the Ottoman Zoo, which various state National Guard units have taken over and are using as a campground.

“I wonder what they did with the animals,” Lopez says.

The opulent neighborhoods near downtown, which just a few weeks ago boasted shady, tree-lined streets with flamboyant Antebellum-style mansions, have been decimated. Roofs have collapsed onto cars still parked in their driveways. Sheared power lines dangle onto the street, ensnared among garbage, leaves and branches.

The side of a Motel Six has been ripped off exposing four floors of hallways and rooms. The glass windows of a Shell Station mini-mart are smashed, the guts of the store spilling out onto the street. Doors to a Whole Foods sit wide open to anyone who wants in, the store’s alarm system screaming its warning to nobody.

As the convoy moves deeper into the city, things look even worse. Huge trees lie uprooted, hurled like javelins tens of feet by Katrina. Other are bent back against houses as if, when the 190-mile-per-hour winds came screaming through the city, the trees themselves began knocking desperately on doors, hoping someone would take them in.

The chatter over the police radio stops suddenly; the officers obviously still shocked by what they’re seeing for the second time. The media has been hovering over the flooded neighborhoods near Canal Street, but clearly Katrina showed no mercy to areas on higher ground either.

“It’s just weird, because I’m seeing all these places where I used to eat at, where I used to stay, where I used to go out,” Blakeney, who lived in New Orleans until he was 6 years old and returned on occasion with his family, says.

At the staging area, essentially a deserted dirt parking lot near downtown, the officers pile on pounds of equipment—bulletproof vests, Taser guns, rifles, flashlights, Camelbacks filled with water and the ever important “Meals Ready To Eat” or MREs.

It’s not even mid-morning, and already the humidity has settled over the city like a fog.

“This ain’t Santa Fe,” local Special Investigator Pat Oakley, whose mother grew up in Agua Fria Village, says through a grin.

Soon, a portion of the New Mexico group teams up with the SWAT officers from Champagne and heads off to another staging area where word is they’re going to provide security for FEMA on a body recovery mission. But when the two teams reach their destination, the FEMA contacts are nowhere to be found. After another hour of waiting, Major Lopez receives a message that the search has been called off because the proper biohazard suits aren’t available and FEMA is worried the officers could get sick.

“That sort of gives you an idea of how things have gone,” Lopez says. “There’s a lot of waiting around. The circumstances have made communication very difficult.”

After yet another hour of waiting, the New Mexico team finally receives orders to help evacuate residents in the area. A National Guard truck ferries them and a fresh-faced Louisiana State Police officer past more debris-filled streets and the still-smoldering innards of a large burnt building before dropping them in a neighborhood just east of the Convention Center.

Sgt. Tom Christian, who heads a Special Investigations unit in Albuquerque, divides the six officers into two three-men teams and orders them to walk slowly down the streets, AR-15s in hand, and look for anyone still intent on defying Mayor Ray Nagin’s vow of forced evacuations.

“State Police! Anyone there?” Pat Oakley yells as he pounds on the door of house with a horribly contorted frame.

A starving dog rushes out of an adjacent home and begins yelping at Special Investigator Nathan Lucero. Lucero’s hand moves to his pistol, but the dog backs off and the team keeps moving.

“These dogs are dying, bro,” Oakley says, shaking his head.

There are signs of life everywhere, but oddly placed, like post-modern photographs: a tattered mattress on top of a car, a black microwave oven sitting on a street corner, a bag full of crawfish bones, picked clean, lying at the edge of a garbage-strewn driveway.

As the officers move from house to house, one can see other police teams conducting similar searches nearby.

Suddenly, there is a series of shouts. Another group of New Mexico State Police patrolling a perpendicular street has found a body on the front lawn of a one-level home. The body is wrapped in a bed sheet and smothered with flies. The smell forces officers to cover their faces. Someone radios in to the staging area to send out a New Orleans coroner’s team.

Another hour goes by and the officers have yet to find anyone to evacuate. Finally, while knocking on doors at a subsidized housing complex, they find someone.

Kendall Willis, a 44-year-old tall, gangly man who looks far older than his age, peers out incredulously from his doorway. He’s the only civilian around for miles.

“You have to come with us, sir, you have to get out of here,” somebody says.

Before the officer can finish, Willis shakes his head no.

“I ain’t wanna go with ya’ll. It’s dirty. There’s puke everywhere. I don’t wanna go,” he pleads.

Sgt. Christian walks into Willis’ immaculate one-bedroom home, stockpiled with food and bottled water, and puts his arm around the man, who seems close to tears.

“We can get you a shower. Get you some fresh food, some company to talk to,” Christian says. Willis crinkles his nose, adjusts his glasses and stares wide-eyed at Christian, before pacing around his apartment for a few minutes.

“You gotta let me get my things…my medicine, my address book, my Walkman,” he says.

Christian smiles and tells him, “of course,” before escorting Willis out of his home and helping him into the Guard truck.

Willis sits alone in the truck, hunched over, his Walkman on. He stares straight ahead, as if refusing to acknowledge the fallen sky around him.

The Truck Stop

The small town of Pineville sits approximately 170 miles northwest of New Orleans, through overgrown bayous, lonesome railroad trestles and roadside Cajun food shacks.

On a warm but pleasant Friday night, there’s little sign of the swath of violence wrought by Katrina. No broken houses, no floods, no police, no evacuees, no shelters. Just people sitting on their porches sipping Budweiser, or readying themselves for the local high school football game, or heading to the one Wal-Mart in this quiet Louisiana town to acquire groceries for the weekend.

If it weren’t for the long queue of trailer trucks directly behind the Wal-Mart, one could imagine, for a brief moment, that Katrina never happened.

The simple fact, however, is that no part of this gorgeous countryside has gone untouched. Behind Pineville’s Wal-Mart, behind all the trucks, on the grounds of Camp Beauregard, New Mexicans Lineback, Galterio and their team of disaster relief workers have been running Hurricane relief operations for all of Louisiana going on two weeks. In fact, they started operating out of Beauregard the day before Katrina touched ground. Their order to construct the country’s biggest truck stop was relayed by FEMA to Bob Lineback on that otherwise uneventful August afternoon in Santa Fe on what seems like years ago.

“The first night was too rough,” Galterio says with a chuckle as he prepares to brief the rest of the team. “We got here and there were about 30 trucks ready to go, and we had to come up with a system to get them out to the Hurricane areas.”

That night Lineback, Galterio and the team strategized into the morning before settling on a similar organizational method they use to fight fires. Called “Flagging and Ducktape,” the system involves identifying different trucks with colored flags depending on the supplies they haul and shooting them off to locations which FEMA calls in. Teams from the US Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers were sent to Beauregard to help with the process.

“We’ve never done anything like this,” Lineback says. “We’re used to working with fires and firemen, not truckers.”

Just because the system was in place, however, didn’t mean everything ran smoothly. Once the levees broke in New Orleans, and a seemingly controllable situation devolved into a worst case scenario, FEMA officials called the New Mexico team on Sept. 5, frantic that gas was running short and that truckers would either be stuck on the road or wouldn’t have enough fuel to leave. They told Lineback and Galterio to solve the problem, or the entire operation might be killed with countless Katrina survivors stranded in the process. The New Mexico team quickly contracted a local company to build a 116,000-gallon fuel depot at the base.

“FEMA will pick up the bill,” Galterio says with another laugh.

Since those first days, a few more glitches aside, the New Mexico team has managed to ship off more than 2,000 truckloads of water, ice, MREs, cots and other supplies. About 250 trucks leave Beauregard each day, and trucks coming in from their routes are now turned around with fresh supplies in 15 minutes or less. The asphalt road which traverses the base has started to crack from the weight of the trucks.

The biting criticism of FEMA for dragging its feet in Katrina’s aftermath has stung the team a little, although it’s clear they view themselves as a separate entity well removed from the bureaucratic morass drawing the fire. Judging from the New Mexico team’s account, it’s clear that ample supplies have long been in place to help those in need. But because of the total bedlam on the ground, and reasons yet unknown, that supply chain was slowed once it hit the areas ravaged by Katrina.

“We’ve been sending trucks out for so long, it hurts a little to have what we’re doing go unacknowledged,” Margo Whitt, the team’s public information officer and a native of Cloudcroft, says.

Criticism aside, team members know people’s lives are in their hands, even though this disaster—unlike a forest fire—is less tactile.

Instead, the team traces what’s happening in New Orleans and elsewhere not only through news reports but also by the nature of supplies they send out. Water, food and items necessary for survival are slowly giving way to cots, baby food and items more suited to life at the shelters.

The truckers, of course, are the team’s most important connection to the madness occurring down the highways which stretch through the bayous from Pineville to New Orleans.

One trucker, Sebastian Thompson from Port Gibson, Miss., made four trips into New Orleans during the height of Katrina and relays to Whitt what he’s seen.

Whitt nods anxiously as Thompson recounts what it was like dropping off a recent truckload at New Orleans International Airport.

“We haven’t seen the disaster,” she says, watching a fresh line of trucks roar into the base, bleary-eyed drivers hopping down from their cabins. “But we know it’s there.”

What Do We Do Now?

On a recent morning in Baton Rouge, talk show hosts on a local radio station posed the question, “What do we do now?” and took phone calls from listeners who offered their own ideas.

No one knows how long it will take to clean up the mess caused by Katrina: the water, the streets, the damaged homes and businesses. There are, however, signs of hope. At Baton Rouge bars, patrons talk of the jobs likely to come to New Orleans. Political leaders like Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, give impassioned speeches about the noble task of building up a new city, a new life. The millions of dollars in relief pouring into the area from all over the world are certain to help.

As for the New Mexicans, Lineback and Galterio’s team in Pineville is nearing the end of its 21-day deployment but that could be extended by FEMA.

The New Mexico State Police have been asked to stay in Baton Rouge for 90 days to help the Baton Rouge Police Department patrol a city which has tripled in size and whose crime rate will likely rise as well.

“Sign me up,” says one officer when told of the request.

David Luckey is back in Santa Fe now, a changed man from all he saw; he would like to return to help again if time and money allow.

Irene Tohtsoni is still at the River Center and will stay until the Red Cross doesn’t need her any more, which won’t likely be any time soon, considering the agency’s recent request for 40,000 more volunteers.

The long-term implications of Katrina are more ominous. FEMA is in shambles; its leader Michael Brown resigned following outraged public criticism. A country’s confidence has been deeply shaken—both at the sight of a major American city careening over the edge in such a short period of time and the failure of local and federal authorities to stop it from happening. It’s unclear whether many of the poor, black residents of New Orleans now holed up in shelters in Baton Rouge, Houston and across the country will ever go back.

When asked if he thinks destruction such as that wrought by Katrina could occur in New Mexico, also a poor state with a large population of color and a legacy of ineffectual government, Major Daniel Lopez shakes his head: No.

“New Mexico is just too spread out. There’s just not a lot of major population areas,” he says.

A few minutes later, Lopez glances out the window of his State Police truck at the remains of a city no longer there. He takes a long drink from his soda, restates the question out loud: “Do you think this could happen back home?”

Outside the window: An entire row of homes impaled by toppled trees and power lines, an abandoned New Orleans Police car with charred windows and stripped tires leaning against a roadside curb; the tide of viscous, black floodwater pooling around a McDonald’s on the horizon.

It is impossible to imagine such devastation amidst our own landscape. It is hard enough to believe it in Louisiana, even when you see it with your own eyes.

Santa Fe Reporter

When it was founded in 1974, the Santa Fe Reporter's mission was to create lively competition for a stodgy and timid daily press. That tradition continues today. The Reporter investigates beneath the surface, presenting in-depth stories often overlooked or uninvestigated...
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