By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
Published September 3, 2005
NEW ORLEANS - I want to introduce you to Clarence Smith. I met him while covering Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans this week.
Clarence did something remarkable after Katrina hit.
He was one of those who stayed. He and thousands of others were plucked from roofs and brought to dry land at the base of a bridge in eastern New Orleans. The bridge spanned a moderately damaged neighborhood to the west side of where the floodwaters reached 20 feet or more.
After these people were rescued, the National Guard carried many of them to the Superdome, which I would estimate was up to 5 miles away. But about 200 were left behind, boxed in by floodwaters on all sides.
They formed a makeshift camp, but had no food or water. Tempers flared. The daytime heat was astonishing. The nighttime darkness was terrifying. Almost all were black.
They had been there nearly 24 hours when my colleague Aaron Sharockman (who is white, like me) steered our sport utility vehicle through murky, fuel-slicked water that was more than 3 feet deep, and found them.Clarence had become their ad hoc leader.
A tall and muscular black man in a blue tank top, Clarence saw me talking with folks in the camp. I saw him, too, because he was pulling a wagon full of food and water, which he was handing out to people. He approached me.
Clarence, 44, made it clear from the start that he was grateful he and his wife had been rescued from the roof of their home. But then he told me how these people were abandoned, how old people were withering without medicine, how injured people were near death. An old lady passed out on the concrete while we talked.
I wrote down what he said. After a while, I asked where he got the food and water. He looked down and said some good Samaritans brought it. I knew that wasn't true. I told him if he broke into nearby shops for food and water, I didn't think anyone could blame him. He admitted that's where the stuff came from.
Clarence told me he wanted police there for security, to break up fights. He also knew a neighboring area, which had not been nearly as hard hit, was full of white people who were not welcoming to members of the camp.
I knew this, too. We had interviewed a white resident who lived there. He described an enclave that feared the group of black people. He said many residents were armed and organized.
He mentioned nothing of helping them, even as he tried to joke to us: "The natives are getting hungry." We didn't laugh.
I asked Clarence why it seemed black people had been especially hard hit in the storm. He pointed to the camp and said that was my answer.
Those in charge, Clarence told me, don't care about poor, black people. Time and again, they are left behind.
"This isn't 1965," he told me. "This shouldn't be happening."
His suspicion of people in power was so resonant that he, like many black people in New Orleans, believed the city purposefully broke the levy that flooded their neighborhood so the famous French Quarter and white areas of town could be spared.
I don't think New Orleans should be singled out. Many - if not all - major U.S. cities have poor black sections that are in ragged parts of town, farther away from emergency services or neglected by other city departments. This is a national problem.
But never have the results of systematic and latent racism been so obvious and painful. Thousands of people of one race died because of it. If I were a black leader in New Orleans, I would be enraged. Heck, I'm a white guy from St. Petersburg and I'm enraged.
So, if anyone ever tells you the days of segregation and racism are long gone, please remind them of Katrina and New Orleans.
And also remind them of this about Clarence. Remember I told you he did something remarkable?
Three people at the camp were old white ladies taken from a retirement home. Before I left the camp, I saw Clarence taking them food and water.
He gave those white ladies more than he had given to anyone else in the camp - including himself.
If only all of us were so blind to wealth and color.