August 29th, 2008
09:10 AM ET

Gun shots in a ghost town

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/29/art.katrina.tracysabo.jpg caption="Tracy Sabo on her way to a shoot in New Orleans"]

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.

Tracy Sabo
CNN Senior Producer

"Wow! Has it already been 3 years? It seems like only a few months ago that I was jolted out of bed in the early hours by an atypically panicked and overly concerned voice which said, "Get to New Orleans immediately! We need you there!" That moment was one I will never forget. To me, it was a real plea for much-needed assistance from the "CNN team," not just the usual call I often receive saying, "news has broken and we need a team on the ground to tell it."

That memorable call also came from the late Beverly Broadman – a tremendous and amazing woman, a CNN original and an amazing National Assignment Desk Manager – who lost a long health battle earlier this year. Bev was the first to remind us all that whatever unpleasant conditions we faced in the field were nothing in comparison to the struggles of those we were sent to cover.

I immediately flew into the nearest open airport in Baton Rouge, LA, and I rented a 4-wheel drive SUV. At the time, I never imagined I wouldn't return it for three months!

I packed the vehicle with supplies like batteries, flashlights, bottled water, canned and pre-packaged food... and yes – even underwear and clothes for fellow employees stuck in NOLA. I bought as many empty gas cans as I could locate, strapped them into the car and onto the roof of the SUV and finally started what would prove to be an 8-hour trek into New Orleans (normally it's only an hour and a half).

Along the way, I was able to talk my way through some checkpoints using my media credentials. However, I'd have to refer to many of the other manned and unmanned checkpoints as requiring "a more creative and technically challenging approach." Suffice it to say, I didn't always follow their advice.

I knew the area, the topography and alternate routes as I'd been to the area many times to visit my sister who, luckily, had since relocated. There were times my route required driving onto riverbanks and raised sidewalks. I saw a local restaurant explode in fire before my eyes – not a soul in sight to assist. I drove over downed tree limbs and stopped more than once to use a construction site's porta-john while en route. I had no cell service for most of this journey, so when service did appear momentarily, I'd send out a quick blackberry text to Atlanta updating them on my progress. I made it into downtown New Orleans (the last leg meant driving unnoticed on the famous Riverwalk raised footpath). Less than one mile from downtown, I came upon a Wal-Mart store. It was at this point that I could tell the conditions in New Orleans had not only physically worsened for those left behind, but it was greatly deteriorating socially as well.

I witnessed 3 young men running across the street in front of me with rifles and handguns. This Wal-Mart was in a full state of chaos – the front plate glass windows had broken and the store's contents were being looted right in front of me- televisions, appliances and clothes were being loaded into trucks. Some on foot were walking with boxes of food on their heads.

It finally struck me – this was a dangerous risk I was taking. With full gas cans on my roof and a month's worth of "emergency" supplies in my vehicle, I quickly realized I could become "Target #1." They had guns and I didn't even have a working cell phone (not that police would likely have be able to come rescue me anyway). I quickly pulled off the road before I was noticed and waited more than 30 minutes until I felt it was safe to pass.

I could now see the hotel in the distance – and I knew CNN personnel were waiting there inside. I parked the vehicle in the shelter of a multi-level garage, reluctantly waded through waist-deep water next to a very large rat and finally reached the hotel lobby... and my overly surprised and thankful colleagues.

Not surprisingly, NOLA Police also met me at the hotel door and demanded my car keys saying, "Martial law is now in effect, and we are "commandeering your vehicle." After a very heated debate, I relented (after removing and relocating all of our supplies). All I will say about that is... I may or may not have used a decoy scenario to rifle through the PD's lockbox the next morning to take back what was rightfully ours." All I have described up to this point – that was the EASY part.

Words cannot adequately describe the sights or emotions I witnessed over the next 2-3 months. I cried as I watched new mothers in hospital gowns being airlifted to New Orleans Int'l. Airport on Army choppers. They told me they were separated from their day-old babies, had no idea where they were taking them and no pictures to even prove their existence. Some of these babies had not yet even been named, and I honestly wonder to this day whether they made it back to one another correctly. I watched as several airlifted patients lost their battle for life – laying with IV's in darkness and extreme heat – right on the floor of the NOLA airport lobby. I spoke to people who had been stranded at the NOLA Convention Center for days. I smelled the foul stinch of human feces – which were lying in the open air on the streets – right next to the makeshift sleeping quarters of small children and families which very easily could have been my own. I watched the removal of several of the dead, who were elderly and unable to get out of their homes as floodwaters rose. Family pets all over town met the same fate.

I watched as fear began anew only a week later as Hurricane Rita began a similar, ominous path in the Gulf. Meanwhile, the "initial cleanup" went on for months. The foul "Katrina smell," as we dubbed it, remained much longer. The levees were in disarray, and emergency pumps were not sufficient. I watched as entire neighborhoods flooded and re-flooded to their roofs multiple times.

All the while, CNN and other media outlets lived in RV's and in tents placed right on top of the famous trolley tracks in the middle of downtown Canal Street. The "ghost town" effect brought palpable anxiety as darkness set each night. Gunshots could be heard – only sometimes followed by emergency sirens. When one downtown block regained limited power a full three weeks later, it signaled hope for us all.

Much of my time in NOLA flew by as we were all entirely focused and committed to a common goal – seeking and demanding help for these brave Americans and allowing them to tell their own stories. Not a day went by where I wasn't thankful for this amazing and historic opportunity.

I still think much of what I saw and heard in New Orleans lives deep in the recesses of my mind. There is no way any mortal mind could possibly process this kind of shock and dismay. I've traveled to many "less fortunate" countries and seen the plight of starving Africans... the mental effects of endless wars in the Middle East... and hundreds of homeless on the streets in Asia, Mexico and S. America. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I'd ever cover a 1-day event that resulted in a similar mental and physical plight for several hundred thousand people... right here in America.

As Hurricane Gustav continues to gain strength and chart an eerily similar course towards New Orleans this week, I rationalize, "Mother Nature can't possibly be that cruel, can she?"

Filed under: Hurricane Katrina
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Melony Sabo Bradley

    Hi! THIS IS MY SISTER TRACY's article! I am so PROUD of her efforts after Katrina in New Orleans. She was there for 3 months...a life-changing experience for her – ITracy visited me many times in NOLA when I lived there from 1974 – 1982 when she was a young girl...Incredible that 20 years later she would have to cover the devastation of 2005...Now in 2008 it's difficult to accept that another horrible storm is headed there again...

    August 31, 2008 at 10:55 am |
  2. Vicky, Ontario, Canada

    Tracy, That's just an amazing story, and I'm not sure how you did what you did, other than that you have to deal with the situation you're dealt. I can just imagine the trip to the hotel, but can't imagine you driving on the raised walk of Riverwalk, and can picture you coming up from the parking garage up the stairway to the lobby at the hotel..the Royal Sonesta? I can only imagine how you've had to process all the images you saw at that time, and how the current situation is likely bringing alot of that back. While some part of me can hope that Gustav will dissipate before hitting any of the Gulf Coast, I also know that's not likely, and I pray that people will be able to keep themselves safe, and evacuate early and far enough to avoid the storm. The people of the Gulf Coast have been resilient, but not without a personal cost. I listened to many stories from people there about friends who could no longer persevere, and committed suicide, about personal challenges, and about the need to go home to NOLA and the Gulf Coast. While I know that Gulf Coast is likely to be hit by hurricanes, it just seems really too soon for them to have to confront such a serious storm. I get angry when people tell me that they think the Gulf Coast and NOLA are already recovered, and it's difficult to strike a balance between being hopeful and optimistic, while also presenting some information about the challenges that still remain.

    All of you take care of yourselves and keep out of Gustav's way, but thanks for being there on the 3rd anniversary to keep us all mindful of what happened and how the recovery is going.

    August 29, 2008 at 2:57 pm |
  3. Julie San Diego, CA

    Tracy, you are amazing. I hope they're paying you well.

    If anyone tries to take your car keys in the future, drop them in your underwear and say: "Come get them."

    Always works for me.

    August 29, 2008 at 12:54 pm |
  4. Tina

    I know, and we thought we had it bad when we had no power only for a week , no gas, nor even a loaf of bread. We didn't no what panic really meant. I can't even imagine.

    If Gustav hits Morgan City or around Houma, New Orleans will get the
    right side of the storm.

    Who knows where it will go at this point. Jackson's hotels are already booked. Tupelo, MS is filling up pretty quickly. I think everyone is more prepared this time around. I just hope , if it comes this way, the levee's hold in New Orleans.

    August 29, 2008 at 11:11 am |
  5. Heather

    I remember watching your coverage and being embarrassed. We are America, we are the one's who send help and supplies to help other countries.It was shocking to see that it was happening in this country and the total lack of planning and organizing.I think what really angers me today is how much red tape and total bs people who are just trying to rebuild have to go through. It's an outrage to me. I do not understand why people have to be homeless and live under a bridge who are just trying to rebuild.

    August 29, 2008 at 10:37 am |
  6. bonobolucy

    God, I hope not.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:53 am |
  7. djak

    I read elsewhere on CNN's site this morning a very true statement. Government can only do so much in the way of preparedness. The people of New Orleans must also do their part to avoid a replay of that horrible storm. I sincerely hope they are all ready this time. And yes, Mother Nature certainly can be that cruel. I just hope God will be watching over New Orleans more closely this time.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:50 am |
  8. BC

    Maybe they have learned to leave this time? Pay attention to the warnings people of New Orleans.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:47 am |
  9. Ann

    Anderson, we had the opportunity to be in NOLA this pass July for our son's baseball tournament, and as we toured the city we found so much disparity. We took the St Charles trolley line and found that the homes in the upscale neighborhoods were pristine and unhampered by any natural disasters. But then if you take the Canal Street trolley you find boarded up homes, and businesses. Homes that still displayed the "X" marks in the front. Homes that owners have moved back into, but really you wonder if its safe for them to. How a government can turn a blind eye to the devostation that a group in society is going through is beyond belief. If you wonder if racial divides still exist in this country you need to just look at the city of NOLA. You can see where that line in drawn. And for this current administration to basically perform ignore the pliight of these people knowing that no one is going to hold them accountable is just amazing. Is it bc they are too poor to even count as citizens. That maybe they are not a well formed group that no matter what their complaints are it will not be heard bc they are not powerful enough to get their points across? When you think about it, you can't help but get a lump in your throat knowing that the government that we pay taxes to, is responsible for ignoring the needy. Go to the City Park and its eary how there are hardly any birds or squirrles around. They've all left the city.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:34 am |
  10. Annie Kate

    I hope Mother Nature is not that cruel to visit the same scale of destruction on New Orleans again barely 3 years after Katrina – the same goes for Pascagoula, Waveland, Ocean Springs, Pas Christian, Bay St. Louis and the rest.

    I do know that at least some of the NOLA citizens are already getting ready to evacuate. My college daughter's roommate is from NOLA and she went home yesterday to bring her cat and a few other things for her family up because the family is not going to have room for it all in the cars they have. My oldest daughter, who used to live in New Orleans, always thinks a hurricane will turn and not hit NOLA – that is what it did each time in the ten years she lived there. But even she is on the phone calling her friends and her in-laws and seeing if anyone needs help evacuating. Katrina taught a hard lesson and thankfully some are remembering it – I just hope all do and I so hope the levees hold.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 29, 2008 at 9:32 am |
  11. J Bryant

    Being from Mississippi, it really bothers me to see all of these articles about New Orleans after Katrina. I understand that the city flooded but please remember that towns were completely WIPED AWAY on the coast of Mississippi and residents are still living in FEMA trailers. 3 years later!!!

    August 29, 2008 at 9:31 am |
  12. Cindy

    Time does have seemed to have flown by. It doesn't seem like it has been three years since Katrina. But I know that it hasn't flown by for the ones that still live there. I mean a lot are still homeless three years later! And crime has gotten WAY worse! While some say NOLA has gotten better...it may have in the "ritzy" areas or the areas that make the town their money but in the normal towns and in the lower income towns it is not.


    August 29, 2008 at 9:29 am |
  13. Amy

    Well I'm a little teary-eyed remembering all the horrible s*it after The Storm, but thank you so much Anderson Cooper for being such a champion of New Orleans. If I had a key to the city, I'd give it to you!

    August 29, 2008 at 9:20 am |