Black Excellence

Katrina and Haiti: My Experience With the Military and Natural Disasters in Black Communities

black communities, black culture, military disaster response, black lives matter

“More dead?” I asked the question, knowing the answer. One of my shipmates nodded her head as she read off the names of two family members. There was a soft glow coming off the screen. The computer screen’s glow was only slightly duller than the cool, calming red neon LED lights that were on throughout the ship during emergencies. And this was such an emergency.

Almost all shipboard operations were halted, including the ship’s engine. There would be no going anywhere outside the vessel, no use of electrical equipment (save for those essential personnel like me and my colleagues), and no outside communication of any kind. The problem was, about seven people on the ship had lost family members because of Hurricane Katrina, and seven others were about to get the same terrible news.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with winds of 98 miles per hour. Not only would this be the costliest natural disaster in American history ($112 billion dollars 2016 USD), it would also be one of the deadliest, with 1,836 confirmed dead across seven states. Sadly, the total number of dead still isn’t known. What is known is that black neighborhoods got hit worst. Before the storm even landed, when it was just a tropical depression off the Gulf of Mexico, my ship knew about it. Yet, for several days, we remained off the coast of Georgia, doing donuts in the Atlantic.

I was in the Information Technology division of the Operations Department. Our job was to do things like monitor the ship’s internet output and input, destroy decrypted information and encrypt messages to be sent on secure lines, and also to switch and then align satellites depending on where our water craft was in the ocean. Exciting as it sounds, it was as boring as it was stressful. Until we went to Haiti.

Several weeks before Katrina, my boat went to the small country. We’d been told we were going to provide relief to Haitians affected by the 2004 coup de´tat of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.  A year after the coup, the country was still messed up. This should come as no surprise. Haiti has an overwhelming history with infighting and natural disasters.

“What did you catch?” I asked one of my shipmates, as our ship made small circles near the coastal village of Abricots, about 175 miles away from Port Au Prince. The water was filled with trash, yet still clear enough to see straight down for a good 15 meters.

“Just look,” my buddy said, his fishing line whining as he reeled in a boot with a tampon on its heel. We chuckled a little, but it was hard to ignore what we saw from the ship looking at the island: fires, broken, battered wooden ships, crying children. I still remember those dark black faces, smiling, because they just knew we were going to save them.

Then, a huge wooden ship was on our tail. It didn’t just emerge, actually. It was sort of like it had already been there and we all suddenly became cognizant of it. This boat was ancient. Either that or it had just been made in the exact way a 17th century buccaneer might fashion a quick getaway ship in order to pillage and plunder along the Barbary Coast. And it was big! About 35 or 40 feet tall. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that it was much more rickety than a ship should be. Some of the wooden joints of the ship were not wood at all, but shoeboxes, toy boxes, Styrofoam, and plastic bottles.

Beaming adults smiled brightly, waving their limbs like life depended on it. I gasped. Their fingers looked like thin licorice sticks, they were so hungry.

The little kids on the ship waved happily at us. In their tattered and frayed getups, they looked like they were putting on a generic stage production, one that heavily showcased what poor kids looked like a hundred years ago. A swollen belly peaked out from underneath the shirt of one of the children, and I couldn’t tell if she was malnutritioned or just pregnant. She seemed way too small to be having a kid, but just the right size to be underfed.  

Over the ship’s loudspeaker I heard the booming voice of my Haitian shipmate, Poitier. He was a really nice guy with a dark past that he never spoke about. This was his homeland, these were his people. Surely, he was going to give them good news.

“Arrêtez! Arrêtez!” Said Poitier, instructing them to stop, not to come an inch closer. “Nous allons te tuer. Nous vous tuerons si vous vous rapprochez!” The threat of being blown out the water can really change a person’s outlook. The massive ship diverted. Cut off. Rejected. Its passengers, with their beautiful smiling faces floated back toward the horror. All those people who looked so much like me. I thought, I could have family here.

“Do you think we’ll go back?” I asked one of my friends. I had just gotten into the Navy in 2004, and I wanted to really make a difference, to help anyone I could. My voice trembled. “Won’t we go back?”

“Well,” shrugged the friend, “I hope so. You never can tell with this command.”

Both during Katrina and Haiti we’d been given clear instructions not to intervene, even though we’d been instructed to go there and help. How can you do one without the other, and then do neither? I’d joined the Navy to keep out of harm’s way. And now, my shipmates and I were allowing harm to befall black people like me.

Of course, this wasn’t a new order of operations. We’ve seen how people in higher-income, traditionally white, neighborhoods get better treatment after disasters—of particular note is government response to the 1994 earthquake in Northridge California, FEMA’s response after the 1989 World Series in San Francisco, and action after 2005’s Katrina, itself.

In each case, the first people given aid were of higher-repute. After the ’94 disaster, in fact, no attempts to fix houses affected in poor areas were made at all, leaving scores homeless. But being there in person, in Haiti, and waiting, hoping the military would allow us to help in New Orleans, made me sad and happy I wasn’t one of them. Regret followed. The government was keeping me alive while allowing so many of my Brothers and Sisters to die horribly. What a cruel punishment.

After Haiti, we made a quick stop in Puerto Rico, where the drinking age is 18. We landed exactly on my 19 birthday and I got massively drunk for the first time in my life. All a sudden, we all forgot that we’d even gone to Haiti and hadn’t rescued anyone. It slipped my mind for several years.          

By the time we were off the coast of Georgia, headed back to our homeport in Virginia, Katrina hit mainland Louisiana and Mississippi, but we had been watching the tempest from the time it was a tropical storm around the Gulf of Mexico so we knew that it would; Navy technology provided us with satellites that allowed images to be displayed at the same time as the National Weather Service or, sometimes, faster.

That giant blob of white twisted and turned its spindly arms, moving like an old-school movie with frames that were too slow. Its angry eye pretended to be calm but its body refused to agree. What happened here? Why weren’t we on our way over there? Somebody immediately sprinted off to inform the captain and the bridge.

The ship went dark and some babble was spewed across the intercom: “General quarters, general quarters! All hands on deck man your stations.” The voice instructed us, and all the well-trained monkeys obeyed. That’s what this was—some kind of dance that we’d practiced time and again but never expected to actually perform. The warm crimson lights filled the passageways, announcing that a danger was imminent, but the soft glow said otherwise. It was so very calming to me, almost like a soothing neon light, stolen from a bar, inside the safety of someone’s house that advertised the beer you were drinking.

And then there was that silence that makes the dark scary.

We also had the unenviable task of gathering info from the NCTAMS LANT (Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station, Atlantic) in Rota, Spain. The station delivered most of the email traffic we received each day, hundreds or thousands of emails with varying levels of importance. Z level messages were of great concern, while O and C might be something as innocuous as local weather in Norfolk, Virginia.

black communities, black culture, military disaster response, black lives matter
(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John Lill/Released)

On this day, a mild rain pelted the top of the ship. There was slight humidity, which had collected inside sections on the ship and dripped through faults in the steel. Though it was morning time, it was perpetual night. Hours passed into the afternoon and evening. We got messages. We sighed.

When a Z message was delivered, we could be certain that it would be followed by a message from the Red Cross. The Red Cross would send these notes signifying deaths of loved ones via the secure channel, and the NCTAMS LANT would receive them and send them to us. Sometimes one person would be dead, some distance relative of one of the service member aboard. Sometimes, three or four people in the family had died: a wife, a sister, and a brother. Someone would go up to the bridge and deliver the sad news. I did it once, only once.

I remember one man, with his dirty coveralls, blackened, grimy, engine room face, got called in to our Radio Shack, so nicknamed because our job title had previously been known as Radioman. He’d gotten the news that his baby sister and baby daughter had died. He’d already seen our vessel’s chaplain, had a great cry, and he wanted to make provisions to leave the ship. We told him that air transport would helicopter him off the ship. That never happened. We didn’t help.

One of those messages that came to our ship on the prompter was a message greater than any we’d seen before: it was from the White House. A “signed” document from George W. Bush himself, alerting naval ships in our area to remain vigilant, yet relaxed, and to take no further action. Naturally, this affected our crew significantly because most of our members came from the South and had family there, an alarming amount specifically in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida.

The crew was growing anxious. I know because I’d often get cornered by several of them at once. They knew I had access to the information, and they wanted it badly.

“I honestly don’t know anything,” I caught myself lying to two men while eating lunch bathed in blood red, a color I felt guilty of causing. One of them didn’t like that answer. He leered over me and I couldn’t eat my potatoes with his hands so close to the tray.

“You know something,” the 6’6” brown giant said. “Please man. I’m beggin’ you. Tell me something!” His voice wasn’t as menacing as I thought it would be. Tears beaded up and spilt over his eyelids. He was instantly a puppy, a teddy bear, a lost child. Why was I so ready to bolt? I promised him I’d find out as soon as I could. From then on, I decided not to watch the prompter, that way I wouldn’t know who’d lost family members, and I decided not to eat in the galley.

I found myself not sleeping much. Even today, I dream of some of those faces I saw in Haiti, and I remember the faces of those men and women who with family in New Orleans. Those people who probably didn’t live. I decided to sleep inside the Radio Shack when I could, rather than report to my sleeping quarters. There was always someone there, awake, alert.

We landed in Virginia and those people with loved ones made accommodations to see them. I really don’t know what happened after that because everyone else got back into a regular routine, so I did too. We all forgot so easily. It’s unnerving to me how effortlessly our memories bury themselves.

But with the disastrous response times, the failure of the government to take responsibility, the massive perpetuating of racial division via television, and limiting of its scope of relief, I can only wonder how many more could have been saved. Our boat had enough space for an additional 200, but we were only the smallest in our battlegroup; the largest ship housed over 1,200. There were seven ships in our battlegroup, a group that could have easily saved 4,000 souls. We didn’t help, and that’s what I remember most. That not assisting, not aiding, the failure to recall, that was a thing I got used to. But I wish I’d never had to. And I wish the US Armed Force cared a lot more about blacks and browns. It might restore my faith in the military I joined to save my own life.


Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.