September 21, 2005
After Katrina, Stories of Gun Battles
NEW ORLEANS -- After the storm came the carjackers and burglars. Then came the gun battles and the chemical explosions that shook the restored Victorians in New Orleans' Algiers Point neighborhood.
"The hurricane was a breeze compared with the crime and terror that followed," said Gregg Harris, a psychotherapist who lives in the battered area.As life returned to this close-knit neighborhood three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, residents said they hoped their experience could convince political leaders to get serious about the violence and poor services that have long been an unfortunate hallmark of their city.
"I think now it's a wake-up call," Harris said.
After the storm, the neighborhood association had to act as law enforcement and emergency response unit as city services collapsed and the police force was unable to protect them.
Citizens organized armed patrols and checked on the elderly. They slept on their porches with loaded shotguns and bolted awake when intruders stumbled on the aluminum cans they had scattered on the sidewalk.
Gunshots rang out for days, sometimes terrifyingly close.
For Harris, the first warning sign came on Tuesday, the day after the storm, when two young men hit his partner, Vinnie Pervel, over the head and drove off with his Ford van.
"A police car drove up behind me and saw it happening but he didn't do anything," said Pervel, who heads the 1,500-household neighborhood association.
Then residents heard that police vehicles were being carjacked and looters were taking guns and ammunition from nearby stores.
"We thought, 'Perhaps this is going to get really ugly,"' said Gareth Stubbs, a marine surveyor who lives across Pelican Street from Harris and Pervel.
A Texas woman who runs a Web site called Polimom.com served as a link between those who stayed and those who had left. With her help, they stockpiled an arsenal of shotguns, derringer pistols and an old AK-47.
They were put to use the next day.
"Some looters came up and pulled a gun on the wrong group of men," said Harris, who said he did not fire a gun himself and declined to say who else was involved in the battle.
"Two men were shot right there," Harris said, pointing down the street as he watered his rose bushes. "One was shot in the back, the other in the leg, and the third I was told made it a block and a half before he died in the street. I did not go down to see the body."
The next day a nearby stockpile of chemicals exploded, shaking the houses and sending a fireball 300 feet into the sky. The fire burned for another three days, Harris said.
"For five days we didn't need FEMA, the Red Cross or the National Guard," Harris said. "The neighborhood took care of itself."