In 2005 journalist Gary Rivlin covered Hurricane Katrina for The New York Times. His new book, "Katrina: After the Flood" (published by Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS), explores New Orleans in the years since the tragic storm hit.
Read the book's prologue below; then, watch Martha Teichner's interview with Rivlin on CBS' "Sunday Morning" August 30.
Overtime pay was never enough. The bosses running the city's transit agency needed to offer more than money to convince the bus drivers, streetcar operators, mechanics, and others they needed to stay in town through a big storm. So in August 2005, with a hurricane named Katrina bearing down on New Orleans, they did as they had in the past ahead of previous scares: they opened up the agency's headquarters, a three-story brick fortress on Canal Street on the edge of the city's central business district. "To get the volunteers we needed, we'd allow them to bring their spouses, their children, grandmothers, grandfathers, girlfriends, nieces, nephews, whoever," said Bill Deville, then the general manager of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority.
The A. Philip Randolph Building -- what RTA employees called the "Canal Street barn" or simply "the barn" -- was hardly the Hilton. People slept on air mattresses and needed to bring their own food. But the barn was also a veritable fort, stocked with military food rations and water and with its own backup generator. Most important, it was in a part of town that everyone knew never flooded. "People really want to be together in a protected facility," Deville said.
Around the region, the traffic on the highways out of town ahead of Katrina was heaviest on Sunday. The storm wouldn't hit New Orleans until early on Monday morning. Yet the city's bus drivers and others needed to work on Sunday, picking up people at evacuation centers around the city and dropping them off at the Superdome. Thus, on Saturday the RTA employees, their families, and their friends started showing up at the barn, dragging with them their suitcases and carrying coolers, and the occasional large silver pot heavy with gumbo. By Sunday night, somewhere around three hundred people were taking refuge there. The group, around 90 percent black, included grandparents and a couple of babies. Only around one-third worked for the RTA. People plugged in hot plates to heat up their food and shared the flasks and bottles they had brought with them. By 10:00 p.m., the winds sounded like a jet engine roaring. By midnight, the pounding rain echoed through the building. Why not a party when there was nothing to do except wait?
Gerald Robichaux, the RTA's deputy general manager for operations, was up early Monday morning. He saw water in the streets and immediately regretted his decision to leave the agency's three big dump trucks parked at the Uptown facility a few miles away, along with the big rigs they used to tow disabled buses. These trucks with tires as tall as the average-size man, Robichaux realized, might prove to be their chariots of escape if the water in the streets kept rising. Robichaux ordered a small crew to take the single high-wheeled vehicle they had at the Canal Street barn and pick up the other rigs on Napoleon Avenue. Robichaux also asked Wilfred Eddington to join them. Eddington was a member of the New Orleans Police Department, and part of the RTA's transit police unit.
The wind was still blowing at around fifty miles per hour when they pulled out of the barn at around 10:00 a.m. Eddington remembered a blue Chevy parked at the Chevron station a block away. The water, maybe curb high, reached the bottom of the Chevy's hubcaps. The water was halfway up the car's windows when they returned ninety minutes later.
From "Katrina" After the Flood" by Gary Rivlin. Copyright © 2015 by Gary Rivlin. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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