August 29th, 2008
08:32 AM ET

Euphoria ripped out of the Crescent City, and I should have seen it coming

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Editor's Note
: Anderson Cooper 360° is in New Orleans tonight, as Tropical Storm Gustav barrels toward the Gulf of Mexico, expected to reach Category 3. We'll look at whether New Orleans is ready, after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina exactly three years ago today. Watch our special report tonight at 10p ET.

John Zarrella
CNN Miami Correspondent

There was just a hint of light in the sky. The sun had not faded out completely. A thin layer of water was rolled out like a carpet on Canal Street. It was the evening of August 29th, less than twelve hours after Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans. Many of the locals who had not evacuated but could afford it, had taken up shelter in the hotels. With the storm now gone, they came out and gathered on Canal. They all had smiles. Some raised glasses. There was a collective sigh of relief. Katrina had missed.

We stood on the trolley tracks, a light breeze in the air, waiting to go live for the evening programs. I had no way of knowing how important those tracks would become a couple days later. Now, on the evening of the 29th, we were surrounded by people who believed their beloved city had been spared. New Orleans had again escaped catastrophe.

That night on Canal Street is one of those moments that is crystallized in my consciousness. With-in a few hours all this euphoria would be ripped out of the Crescent City. But it wasn't until months later that I realized, I should have seen it coming. I stood right in it. I waded through it. I had done so many stories over the years on what would happen if the levees broke yet, I had no idea what it was when it happened.

If memory serves, we were driving along Elysian Fields Avenue on Monday at about three or four in the afternoon. Myself, producer Rich Phillips and video journalist Mark Biello were putting a piece together on the aftermath. We saw a supermarket being looted, damaged buildings and high water. Finally, the water got so high you couldn't drive through it. We stopped to interview a man standing on his porch which was nearly level with the water. He had seen it high before, but not this high. Rich and I and Mark couldn't figure it out. It had rained and rained hard but there was no way rain water could have produced so much flooding. Yet, I never put two and two together. Not until months later. I may be wrong but I believe we were standing in the first of the flood waters from one of the levee breaches.

We shot the pictures and filed a piece that evening on the storm that "just missed." The next morning, the 30th, I awoke before the sun came up between the buildings. Here, another of those crystallized images. I looked out my hotel room window to the street five floors below. Cars sat half submerged in water that raced down the street. I spent much of the afternoon reporting from the roof of the parking garage attached to the hotel. You could see Canal Street from there and hear an occasional gunshot and see people running down the street. The crest of Canal where the trolley ran was high enough to stay dry.

That evening a dozen or so of us sat in the 10th floor hallway, absolutely exhausted. No way to open the hotel windows. The air was stagnant. Down in the lobby the water was knee deep and filled with all sorts of floating junk. God knows what. In the midst of all this, who shows up but Tracy Sabo, a producer from our Dallas Bureau. Tracy had made her way into New Orleans from Baton Rouge with a truck load of supplies. To this day, I marvel at what she accomplished that night getting to us. No one was with her. It was heroic. It would be days before relief supplies and the military would get in. Tracy got in within 24 hours of the levee breaks.

The next morning, Wednesday, we made a call that most of the New Orleans team needed to try to get out. The hotel was being evacuated. Any semblance of law was gone. It was time. We drove from Common Street in a caravan of five or six vehicles. We drove on the sidewalk between the lamp posts and the building walls. It was the only way to keep the vehicles high enough out of the water. We made our way to Canal where I found myself again on the trolley tracks. It was the only high ground. From there, we worked our way through the Garden District and out along the Mississippi and eventually to Baton Rouge.

Many cars were heading out filled with survivors. But the lanes going into New Orleans were empty. I couldn't understand it at the time. I still can't understand it today.

Filed under: Hurricane Katrina • John Zarrella
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Suzanne P.


    Thank you for sharing your account with us. It does sound like you were one of the first to have to wade through water from the levee breaks. I would have imagined a huge rush of water like from a broken dam instead of what you first saw.

    I have never understood how and why our government failed our citizens so badly after Katrina. There was simply no excuse for it. I still can't believe that there was no effective leadership or communications that would have gotten basic supplies and help to the people trapped in that city.

    The first rescuers that got there were just ordinary people who wanted to help – the government's failure became an opportunity for Americans to work together for a common cause...but the sense of betrayal on the part of the government still leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. I just hope that if it happens again the government will be ready and able and into the stricken zones within hours instead of days of the catastrophe.

    Suzanne P.
    Knoxville Tennessee

    August 29, 2008 at 10:01 am |
  2. Cindy

    Yep...NOLA would have been spared if it had not been for the shoddy work done on the levees. Because of that many people died, others lost everything that they had and whole towns were demolished. And most of those towns still sit vacant.

    I hope that things have been "fixed" so that the devastation that occurred will never happen again if another hurricane comes. I very much doubt it though seeing who they have running things down there!


    August 29, 2008 at 8:43 am |