August 29th, 2008
05:48 PM ET

Fort Wal-Mart, and the second Battle of New Orleans

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/29/art.katrina.nopd.jpg caption="Anderson Cooper on patrol with the New Orleans Police Department and Chief Anthony Cannatella during Hurricane Katrina."]

Anthony W. Cannatella, Sr.
Deputy Chief of Operations (ret)
New Orleans Police Department

As I sit here reflecting back on a 41 year career as a New Orleans police officer and the many experiences I have had, my heart always stops on Katrina. Although I have been involved in every type of law enforcement experience imaginable, from shootouts to delivering babies, they all pale in comparison to Hurricane Katrina. On the night of August 28, 2005 as the commander of the Sixth Police District of the NOPD, I realized that my life as well as the 132 officers I commanded was about to change irrevocably.

I held a roll call for all of the officers that night and assigned half of the officers to patrol the roughly 5 square miles of the city until I ordered them off of the streets due to deteriorating conditions. As I stood before the officers I realized that the average age was 25 and that none of these officers were even born when the last major hurricane struck New Orleans, Betsy in 1965!

The look of fear and uncertainty in their eyes caused me concern but I knew they would perform their duties as they swore to do. That night we sat in an elevated police station that swung and swayed in the hurricane force winds. We heard the howling winds as they blew trees and other debris past our police station and we watched as the hurricane force winds drove the rain through the rubber seals on the windows of our police station and the water ran down the interior walls. we thought that our station would certainly be blown down with us in it.

At 7:00AM on Monday, August 29th we realized that we had survived the hurricane but had no idea how much worse it was going to get. Our morning started with handling a dead body in the 1900 block of Jackson Ave. It turns out that a young female drug addict about 25 years old had ventured outside sometime during the storm and was struck in the head by a wind blown street light that had become dislodged from the utility pole. We learned that there were no coroners office personnel in the city and no morgue to come get the body so we had to put her in a police car and transport her to Charity Hospital who refused to take her. After several other local hospitals refused to take her we were ordered to bring her back where we found her. She was promptly returned and tied to the utility pole for future removal. (flood waters did not reach the central city area until Tuesday, 8-30-05) We then liberated some heavy construction equipment and began clearing the streets of the sixth district of debris so we could patrol.

Our next surprise was a call of a shooting at a wholesale clothing store near the B.W. Cooper Housing Development. We arrived to find several thousand looters running in all directions with discarded loot spread out everywhere. Inside the warehouse we discovered the victim, an 18 year old looter who had been shot several times by another looter over a flashlight. We requested a paramedic on a code 3 and were told there were no paramedics as they had left town! We had to carry the victim by his hands and feet to a police car and then transport him to Charity Hospital bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound to the neck. I was notified by dispatch that the hospital administrator had called and wanted us to come back and take the victim elsewhere as they were going to evacuate the hospital. I refused to comply as I knew another move without the victim being stabilized would certainly result in his death. To this day we have no information on who the victim was or what his final condition was.

During the course of the next eight weeks life for the men and women of the sixth district was a nightmare to say the least. Every night I would have to send officers out to patrol in total darkness with the periodic sounds of gunfire and the uncertainty of what would happen next. During the day the officers used their personal boats to rescue over a thousand people from rooftops, attics, 2nd and 3rd floor porches, etc. The fuel for the boats came from siphoning the gas tanks of abandoned vehicles. We were driving police cars on flat tires as there were no spare tires to be had.
The first week still ranks as the worst. The failure of the federal government to deliver food, water, spare tires for police cars, gasoline, medical supplies and other survival equipment to our location is beyond comprehension. The police were left to their own devices to find food and drinking water for themselves for the first five days.

It wasn't until the national media, especially CNN, brought attention to our plight that any relief supplies in quantity started showing up. It was humbling to see police officers giving away food to the citizens still stranded in the city. When the first Oklahoma National Guard helicopter showed up with MRE's and water for the police the officers began distributing it to the citizens that suddenly came pouring out of houses at the sight of the military helicopter.

On June 1st I retired as the Deputy Chief of Operations of NOPD with 41+ years of service. As I noted earlier I have seen it all from the Jane Mansfield fatality to Hurricane Katrina; from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Howard Johnson sniper; from the Black Panther shootout of 1970 to the Pope John Paul mass in 1987 and all the other historic events in between. The one moment in history that I am the most proud of is being in command of 132 of the bravest men and women to ever pin on the badge of a New Orleans police officer, the still unsung heroes of the sixth district, Fort Wal-Mart, the true heroes of the storm and the second Battle of New Orleans !

Filed under: Hurricane Katrina
soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Michael

    Chief Cannatella, I can't thank you and the brave 132 men and women of the 6th District NOPD. I was the General Manager of The Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue at the time of Katrina. The Pontchartrain and the 6th District always had a wonderful relationship which was enhanced on the days and weeks following the storm. Thank you and all of the people who helped protect the city and made it safe for me and my staff to come back.

    August 30, 2008 at 10:28 am |
  2. l hank, houston, tx

    To the mayor and then governor, you did the best you could with what you had. it's unfortunate that while american citizens were suffering, the president's only concern was how to rebuild Iraq after tearing it down for the wrong reasons. We need a president who, again, and again, believes that Charity begins at home.

    August 30, 2008 at 7:33 am |
  3. Stacy

    Thank you for sharing your story. The men under your leadership exhibited true bravery in the face of an out-of-control situation made worse by complete government failure. I'm appalled that you were forced to bring the dead woman back to where you found her. The men of Fort Wal-Mart are what makes this country great.

    August 30, 2008 at 6:21 am |
  4. Steve King

    The story told by Anthony Cannatella is at the very least inspiring and to put it mildly describes the heroics of the police force he led in New Orleans during this great tragedy, Hurricane Katrina. That it took over 5 days for any relief to be delivered is incomprehensible! I still remember the television footage of George (Dubya) Bush walking through the area with a look on his face that screamed "Sucks to be you"!!! It surely will be part of his legacy that he let down his own people. Not only did aid come too late, but as far as I understand, whatever aid did come has not been nearly enough to compensate the victims ... the people of New Orleans. What is far more incomprehensible is that a great nation like the United States, our wonderful neighbour to the south could be so brainless to elect George Bush not once, but twice!!! This kind of neglect would never have taken place if President Clinton was in office at this time! But of course, looking for "Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq" was more important than taking care of his own people for Mr. Bush! For shame, George Bush. There is a ray of hope however. With either the election of Barack Obama or John McCain... the USA has nowhere to go but up! And that's good for my country, Canada, too. I wish all the best to my American neighbours and to those who have yet to be compensated fairly in New Orleans.

    August 30, 2008 at 1:47 am |
  5. Annie Kate

    People like the Chief and his 132 officers had to be the reason that hundreds more didn't die. Its remarkable how heroic humans can be when faced with a crisis like Katrina. Thank you Chief for sharing your account with us.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 29, 2008 at 11:15 pm |
  6. Leslie

    Re: Rupert

    Oh, I'm sorry. I guess the world shouldn't look back upon tragedies? Okay, you remember that in the upcoming 9/11 anniversary. I'll continue to remember the losses this country, and the world, has faced - On any anniversary.

    You apparently will continue to be bitter and blast a news organization for honoring those whose lives have been lost.

    August 29, 2008 at 11:00 pm |


    August 29, 2008 at 10:24 pm |
  8. Jessep

    I like others who have commented here can only thank you (CNN) on behest of your readers for publishing this amazing man's account. I can not even begin to imagine the strength these fine men and women must have possessed to continue on in the line of duty for their fellow citizens. Against all odds, mercilessly outnumbered and overpowered by human nature and nature itself they valiantly struggled on and never lost sight of what was important.

    I have fallen in love with New Orleans over the years and in my visits I've even fallen in love IN New Orleans as well! My wonderful girlfriend is on a flight up here to Seattle as I write this but we will be coming back regardless of what this storm has to throw at the big easy to help in any way we can. One thing I find so amazing about your city is even after only two trips down in as many months, artists in Jackson Square and people working at shops along Decatur even started recognizing me and were always the first to come up and say hello with a giant smile and a handshake or a hug. I may live in the northwest but New Orleans will always be my home away from home and I only wish that the current storm season passes by so that we can all keep getting the city up to it's former glory that much sooner!

    On a final note, thank you Mr. Cannatella for your service and devotion. You set an amazingly high bar that I could only wish everyone else would try to live up to. If I see you at the PAX brewery one day I most sincerely hope you would give me the honor of buying you a round.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:51 pm |
  9. Greg from Louisville

    I am in love with the city of New Orleans. The people, the culture, just everything about it. I don't know how you couldn't love it. This just goes to show people how bad it was. I've been to NOLA since Katrina and some of the people I met were some of the most incredible people people I've ever met with horrifying stories of the hurricane and amazing stories of recovery.

    I've had right wing, conservative, ignorant friends and acquaintances who said thinks like "New Orleans is a city full of sin, they had this coming" or "This is a sign from God that New Orleans shouldn't exist" or "The city is filled with horrible people and this was a sign" and it's taken tremendous strength not to hit the people. They don't understand.

    Thanks Mr. Cannatella, you and your men are heroes.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:27 pm |
  10. Katie

    Your insight and stories are indispensible. It is unfortunate that, only three years after the fact, most of America has forgotten about the horrors of Katrina and the dedicated service that persons like yourself gave.

    Having been to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast several times on rebuilding projects since Katrina, I have seen a small part of the wreckage and cannot give you enough credit for the work you have done in a city that has seen so much hurt. Thank you for what you have done and what you will do for your city, and I hope you never have to undergo such a tragedy ever again.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:16 pm |
  11. rupert

    hurricane katrina ,DAY 12452, give me a break cnn, pathetic liberal outhouse

    August 29, 2008 at 9:09 pm |
  12. yemti

    That gives a true example of a good policeman.It's a good for lesson for others to emulate especially those in some third world countries who rather than serve and protect, turn to extort from innocent civilians no mater the situation

    August 29, 2008 at 8:58 pm |
  13. Shawn

    Well said and well done. You and your men are and were amazing.

    August 29, 2008 at 8:30 pm |
  14. Shorebird

    Chief Cannatella, thank you for posting and thank you for telling your side of the story. I am a diehard lover of New Orleans and its history and people and was horrified to see what happened, the storm and the aftermath and the incredible indifference of our so-called great government and his highness our great Leader. To you and your companions, I tip my hat. You are all unsung heroes.

    August 29, 2008 at 8:16 pm |
  15. Karen- Wyoming

    I was part of FEMA first response teams in both Katrina and Rita and I want to be sure the firefighters are also remembered as the heros they were. Both departments went above and beyond in the worst conditions imaginable. The sights, the sounds and most especially the smells will be hard to ever forget.

    But likewise the heroic service of the fire and police should never be buried or forgotten. Keeping communications going when all the cell towers were blown down and the land lines were non-existent was just one of the many "minor" things that these guys that made a huge difference.

    I think it's beyond human comprehension to even begin to imagine the devastation and chaos these guys faced. For those who lived through it these folks are truly heroic in the best American traditions of courage in facing almost insurmountable odds.

    Thank you for sharing your eloquent story and thank god for Wal Mart! Still not sure how their distribution system was able to get supplies in while the US government couldn't seem to make it. Maybe the government disaster folks should hire a few of the Wal Mart warehouse and distribution guys so they can learn how it's supposed to be done.

    August 29, 2008 at 8:06 pm |
  16. Andrea

    As a Canadian, we watched from afar (but not that far, sadly) and hoped and prayed you all would be safe and helped by your own government. Our own government were held back because they weren't "asked" to help. I know all Canadians felt for New Orleans and its people and wanted to save you all....we pray for you still. Your are a good man, Mr. Cannatella, and did the best with what you had at the time. Be proud.

    I will personally be praying that Gustav spares you and that New Orleans gets back to its old glory.

    August 29, 2008 at 7:24 pm |
  17. ginger

    GOD BLESS our men and women in blue!!

    August 29, 2008 at 7:05 pm |
  18. Babalu2

    Is this the officer who was recently fired by the Nagin administration 15 minutes before his actual last day ended because he wore a blue shirt and not a white shirt to work. His blue shirt was in rememberence of those who had lost their lives in the line of duty while he was a hero in New Orleans. The feds are holding Nagin's hand and walking him through this storm. New Orleans will be safe as the Repubs can't have another botched relief effort the week of their convention.

    August 29, 2008 at 7:01 pm |
  19. toddicus in houston

    thank you for that awesome insight- and thank you for staying in new orleans when other city employees ran. you and your officers are true heroes.


    August 29, 2008 at 6:55 pm |
  20. Angel

    Mr. Cannatella, Sr.,
    Thank you for your many decades of service... but especially thank you for doing what the rest of the US couldnt do and that was be there. We all gave in our own ways but nothing compared to the NO police officers.

    If you havent already – I think a book concerning the Katrina fiasco would be a best seller- especially from your eyes on the inside. Comments like this one: "She was promptly returned and tied to the utility pole for future removal"... are ones many of us have never heard or realized until just reading your article. We NEED to hear more.

    thank you and your team

    August 29, 2008 at 6:40 pm |
  21. pati mc., camp hill, pa

    So great to see you posting Deputy Chief Cannatella!

    Thank you for taking time to tell the TRUTH of what you and your men were dealing with. I will never forget how enraged I was to hear the negative reports about the NOPD during Katrina. It made me ill to hear what was being said about your brave men and women who dared to stay when others fled. We will never forget Fort Wal-Mart, I just pray that it does not have to come back with Gustav.

    Enjoy your retiremen, sir, although I am sure you are still giving your all to keep the good people of the Crescent city safe and well.

    God Bless you and thanks again for sharing what has to be terribly difficult memories. Nonetheless, it needs to be told.

    One lighter note. I remember you and your troop singing Happy Birthday to Anderson, That was so sweet and I could tell how moved he was.

    You will all be in our prayers.

    August 29, 2008 at 6:38 pm |
  22. Jacob

    Joseph Conrad, author of the well known story "Heart of Darkness" famously quoted "The horror, the horror". I'm certain that this was quoted over and over again during that first week, and next week, and the following weeks. It is hard to grasp the incredible challenges, and hideous conditions, the remaining devoted men and women of the New Orleans Police Department faced as they fought to survive in this war of madness. It truely was a war in every sense for these people. Fellow Marine Reservists that I served with, and fellow college students serving in the National Guard, that were fortunate enough to be selected to be a part of the Grandfather of all disaster relief operations this country has ever seen, told me of the stories. It was a humbling experience to hear the stories of those that were visitors. It is incredible to hear this story from a man who was right there in the middle of this nightmare. A great story of courage and strength from a man of experience. Officer Cannatella, well done sir, and I salute you.

    August 29, 2008 at 6:36 pm |
  23. Jana, Indiana

    Chief Cannatella, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us on that fateful day. I am sure it something you or any of the residents in the area will never forget.

    I remember seeing the piece about Fort Walmart and how another police unit was going to go steal the sign.

    I wish you the best in your retirement, but I am sure if Gustav comes close to NOLA, you will be there to help out again.

    I hope everyone in the Gulf Coast area stays safe.

    August 29, 2008 at 6:21 pm |
  24. Shamus62

    A whole lot of negative things came out of Katrina, but it is good to see what we already know in print- the men and women of that department stood up and were not found wanting when it counted. They had families to worry about as much as anyone else, this was their home too, but they did their job anyways. Excellent job Officers. Hats off to ya!

    August 29, 2008 at 6:10 pm |
  25. Leslie

    A very moving account of what it was like to be there through the thick of the storm and then having to face death, violence and helplessness throughout the city of New Orleans.

    I remember being glued to the TV, much like I was during 9/11. Along with citizens dead on the streets, on rooftops waiting for aid - I really realized the implications of Katrina when Anderson Cooper put Mary Landrieu in her place. What nerve to spend minutes thanking the government (which we all know failed) while the city was in chaos. I'll never forget that.

    August 29, 2008 at 5:59 pm |

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