Patricia Thomas, resident Lafitte housing project, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: Matt Pascarella 2006)
Note from Greg Palast: Matt Pascarella and I encountered Patricia Thomas while she was breaking into a home at the Lafitte Housing Project in New Orleans. It was her own home. Nevertheless, if caught, she’d end up in the slammer. So would we. Matt was my producer for the film, Big Easy to Big Empty, and he encouraged my worst habits. I’d worked for the New Orleans Housing Authority years back and knew they wanted the poor black folk out of these pretty townhouses near the French Quarter. Katrina was an excuse for ethnic cleansing, American style. Matt and I skipped cuffs on this shoot, but were charged later by Homeland Security (see below). While I recorded the story of hidden evils on film, Matt gathered a story which no camera can capture. Here it is.
Four years ago, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I sat with Patricia Thomas. Greg Palast and I had just helped her break into her home in the Lafitte Projects. She had been locked out for a year. She showed us her former home, her belongings scattered everywhere, and wrestled out endless stories of post-Katrina life: how she struggled to find shelter over the last year, how they came and put bars on her doors and windows and locked her out, how it was “man made.”
I picked up a photo of her at Mardi Gras, taken a few years earlier, and compared it to what she looked like now. In the picture her hair was longer, her face younger, her smile deeper. Now her arms were wasted and thin, her eyes sunken into her face, and her bottom front teeth were gone. On most days, she told me, she wore her dead mother’s dentures, but today she had forgotten to put them in. Her own teeth broke off when escaping the rising waters. She had fallen face first onto the concrete slab that was her front porch. The very spot where we were sitting was where it had happened. Over my left shoulder, running the length of the building, was a scar, a stain from the water line.
August in Louisiana is unbearably hot for a Northern boy. Beads of sweat poured from my face, down my neck. Patricia went inside, found an old roll of paper towels in a kitchen cabinet and brought me one. The quilted paper had a kitschy design — a giant heart with words that said, “Home Sweet Home.”
I looked at her and wondered how this could happen in my country.
A few weeks before, I was in Mexico City with Palast covering the Presidential Election. A presidency had been stolen. People were on the streets screaming “Vota por Vota, Casilla por Casilla!” Count the votes! “Vote by Vote, box by box!” I had seen the aftermath of a massacre in a small village outside Mexico City. I had seen people from all over the country rise up in anger taking to the streets. I had seen the Zapatistas march and Subcomandante Marcos himself flanked by young women acting as a protective barrier. I had seen the house where Trotsky was stabbed in the back of the head with an ice pick.
When I finally left Mexico City, I remember being deeply confused. The kind of confusion that tears at the soul and has the ability to completely dismantle any preconceived notions of how to view the world. I was inspired to see so many people fighting for democracy, and yet a deep depression sunk in as the plane took off. I knew their efforts would not matter. I had seen the American ‘consultants’, the DC hacks, in the offices of the ruling party and I knew it was over.
Now, here I was — back home in the United States — outside a decimated house near the levees, trying to understand why a New Orleans native, Brod Bagert, was calling a friend who worked with the fire department. Brod was asking his old friend what the number “5” below the giant orange spray-painted X on the front of the house meant. But Brod already knew what it meant.
(Photo: Matt Pascarella 2006)
Here I was watching Brod, one year later, trying to convince himself that what had happened to his neighbors didn’t actually happen. After many long days of hearing countless horrifying stories and walking through miles of destruction, I now stood next to a grown man who was desperately trying to lie to himself simply because the alternative was too painful. I couldn’t hold back the tears. It was the first, and only, time in my professional life that I had to walk away from an interview. I hid out behind a smashed up, rotted out BMW and cried.
After a few minutes I returned to Brod. He hung up the phone, looked at Palast and me, and slowly choked, “Five people died here.”
He finally gave in to what had happened here: the sprayed “9-16” above that X meant that those five bodies had been left to decompose for nearly 19 days before being discovered by rescue crews.