The plan was to evacuate vertically. That’s what the Uptown blue bloods did when a hurricane took aim at New Orleans, and so, too, would Alden J. McDonald Jr., president of the city’s largest black-owned bank. With Katrina bearing down on the region, McDonald had his assistant book a block of rooms at the Hyatt in the city’s central business district. That’s where the mayor would ride out the hurricane and where Entergy, the local electric and gas utility, was setting up its emergency center. The Hyatt, a thirty-two-story fortress made from steel and cement, was wrapped in fortified glass. Rising high above its next-door neighbor, the Superdome, just off Poydras Street, the hotel had its own generator and would be stocked with extra provisions. Theoretically, it promised its guests a safe berth above the chaos.
McDonald woke up early in his home on that last Sunday in August 2005. He had slept maybe three or four hours. The National Hurricane Center categorizes every storm based mainly on the strength of its winds. When McDonald and his wife, Rhesa, had gone to bed on Saturday night, the center had rated Katrina a powerful Category 3. By early the next morning, the storm had been upgraded to Category 5. There is no Category 6.
The sixty-one-year-old bank president drank his coffee and readied himself for his day while a radio blared dire warnings. A lifelong New Orleanian, McDonald knew hurricanes could be fickle brutes. They shift in direction without warning. Their winds pick up speed or deflate in strength depending on the warmth of the waters over which they pass, among other factors. But as of Sunday morning, the radio was reporting that Katrina was a Category 5 storm expected to hit the New Orleans region within the next twelve to twenty-four hours. Scientists warned its winds could top 175 miles per hour. The storm surge—a giant tidal wave, essentially—might reach twenty-five feet. This storm looked like the Big One that experts had been warning about for years.
Home for McDonald was “out in the East”—more formally, New Orleans East, swampland that had decades earlier been drained and converted into a series of subdivisions housing a large portion of the city’s African-American middle class, along with a large share of its black elites. McDonald was the son of a waiter whose annual wages had never topped $15,000. McDonald now lived on a quarter acre in Lake Forest Estates, one of the pricier enclaves in this sprawling appendage to New Orleans whose ninety-six-thousand-plus residents represented around one-fifth of New Orleans’s population. His bank, Liberty Bank and Trust, had financed a sizable share of the homes and businesses in the East. Its headquarters were located in New Orleans East, as was its computer center and storage facility. The majority of the bank’s employees lived in the East as well.
At a little past 8:00 a.m., McDonald slipped behind the wheel of his red BMW convertible. Only later would McDonald understand this drive around New Orleans East as a kind of farewell to his home of more than thirty years. “These are my people,” McDonald would say of the residents of New Orleans East after Mayor Ray Nagin, a month after Katrina, appointed him to a blue-ribbon commission charged with determining which portions of drowned-out New Orleans should be rebuilt and which parts might more wisely be returned to marshland in a city certain to lose residents. “These were my neighbors.” McDonald had been twenty-nine years old and a college dropout when, in 1972, Liberty opened in a trailer in a sketchy part of town. Thirty-three years later,
with a massive storm gathering over the Gulf of Mexico, McDonald was readying for yet another storm. At that point, Liberty ranked sixth on a list of the country’s largest black-owned banks.
The air already felt oppressive, heavy with humidity. The car radio blared ominous warnings about the potential for calamitous flooding that could damage half the city’s homes and leave New Orleans without power for weeks. McDonald’s first stop was Liberty’s headquarters, a rectangular-shaped, six-story glass box gleaming in the morning sun, with LIBERTY spelled out in large white letters across its top. This building, only a few minutes from McDonald’s house, was so new that not every department had yet moved over from the old headquarters on the opposite side of the I-10, the freeway that bisected the East. A few days earlier, the bank had taken delivery on a new mainframe computer that had cost around $500,000. Brand-new desktop computers matched the new furnishings. He parked his car and walked around the building, giving each door a tug to make sure it was locked. Inside was a man the bank had hired to ride out the storm. Accompanied by a pair of dogs and outfitted with several days of food and water, he would serve as a last line of defense against looters.
The percussive sound of nails pounding through plywood accompanied McDonald’s pre-storm tour. Everywhere he looked, people were boarding up windows and loading cars. Despite the dour newscast, his spirits were lifted by the sight of so many of his neighbors taking warnings about the storm so seriously. He crossed to the opposite side of the I-10, parked in front of one of his bank branches, and again jumped out of his car. Standing just under six feet tall, McDonald is a courtly, light-skinned black man with a doughy face, wavy white hair, and matching mustache. Peering through the glass, he saw that his branch managers had placed Saturday’s deposits on top of the filing cabinets—exactly as he had asked them to do.
Next McDonald visited the low-slung bunker next door, the old headquarters his people were vacating. The building housed the mainframe they were using to run the bank until the new machine could be brought online. Most of the bank’s paper records were stored there as well. McDonald was frugal and sometimes questioned the wisdom of writing a $5,000 check each month to a Philadelphia-area disaster-relief
company that promised to keep his bank online if ever his central computers went down. Now the decision seemed wise. As he had done in advance of past storms, he had his people make four backup tapes of the bank’s computer files so they had up-to-date depositor records. One he sent to a Liberty branch in Baton Rouge, another he sent to a Jackson branch. The other two were with a pair of bank employees who had evacuated the area. Let people make fun, but a cautious streak had him creating backup plans for his backup plans. “Without those tapes,” he said, “I’m dead in the water.”
MCDONALD’S WIFE, RHESA, WAS also out of the house early that Sunday morning. She had wanted to leave town rather than ride out the storm at the Hyatt, but her husband and their twenty-four-year-old son, Todd, who worked for the bank as a loan officer, outvoted her. Her job was to pick up her parents on Park Island—a small, genteel community of good-size houses on the Bayou St. John closer to the center of town. Her father was eighty-two years old and her mother only a few years younger. Rhesa was an only child. Her parents would go wherever she was.
Rhesa McDonald’s husband was a big deal in New Orleans. He had had his picture taken with every president stretching back to Ronald Reagan and had met a pope. He was one of the few African Americans who had ever been honored with what the city’s once-daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, called its Loving Cup—a person-of-the-year award given to someone in honor of his or her public service. But Rhesa’s father, Revius Ortique Jr., represented black royalty in New Orleans. Ortique, a civil rights attorney, had been the first African-American justice to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court. Whereas Alden McDonald had shaken hands with presidents, Ortique had been named to five presidential commissions, including the Commission on Campus Unrest that Richard Nixon had created after protesters were gunned down at Kent State and Jackson State Universities. As president of the National Bar Association, an organization of African-American lawyers, he had sat with Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office, where he pressed the president to name more black attorneys to the federal bench. Several months later, Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the US Supreme Court.
Rhesa crossed the short bridge that brought visitors to Park Island and pulled into the driveway of the home her parents owned directly across the street from Ray Nagin’s. Thirty minutes later, she was at the Hyatt. The time was 9:00 a.m.
At the front desk, Rhesa picked up the keys to four rooms to accommodate not only themselves but Todd and their thirty-year-old daughter, Heidi. Rhesa helped set up her parents in their room on the twenty-third floor before entering the room she reserved for herself and her husband.
Thirty minutes later, she was knocking on the door of her parents’ room. “We’re leaving,” she announced. She knew they would put up an argument, but on TV they were warning of mass blackouts. The image of her parents walking down twenty-three flights of stairs made her stand her ground. “You can’t check out, you just checked in!” the clerk said when Rhesa reappeared at the front desk. “Oh, yes, I can,” she responded. She phoned her husband. “I’m picking you up wherever you are. You’re getting in the car and we’re leaving town.” After thirty-one years of marriage, her husband knew better than to argue. Besides, the car radio continued to impress on him the might of Katrina. The line that stuck with him was one the broadcasters kept repeating: Only three Category 5 hurricanes have hit the continental United States in recorded history.
Talk of flooding caused the McDonalds to take several extra precautions before leaving town. McDonald drove one of their cars, a gold-colored Lexus sedan, to Liberty’s headquarters, where the bank had a two-story parking structure. McDonald parked the car on the second floor, where the Lexus would at least be above the flood line if the streets filled with water. He locked the sports car he had been driving in the garage of his house. That at least would protect it from falling debris and hide it from potential looters. At 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, as the McDonalds were preparing to take off, Mayor Ray Nagin declared a mandatory evacuation—the first in New Orleans history.
McDonald got behind the wheel of Rhesa’s dark blue Lexus and pointed the car east. Heidi and her dog pulled in behind them, followed by Todd and a friend. The McDonalds had just said good-bye to houseguests, a couple visiting from Atlanta, who had cut their trip short because of the storm. “Come stay with us,” the couple had suggested.
They were both physicians in Atlanta with a home large enough to accommodate a crowd. So with Revius and Miriam Ortique in the backseat, Alden and Rhesa McDonald headed to Atlanta, followed by two of their three children.
NORMALLY THE DRIVE FROM New Orleans to Atlanta takes around six hours. That Sunday, the McDonalds were on the road for twice that long—and they might be counted among the luckier ones. Ward “Mack” McClendon made the same trip from the Lower Ninth Ward several hours after the McDonalds. McClendon, who would eventually sacrifice everything in his fight to save the Lower Ninth, was already playing hero, rounding up a couple of his neighbors he knew had no other way out of town. McClendon was hoping to make the Atlanta home of his eldest daughter, but gave up past midnight, when they were still in east-central Alabama. There in the town of Opelika, in a cheap motel whose name none of them can remember, McClendon and the others would learn about the fate of New Orleans while watching a small television someone had set up in the corner of the lobby.
Safe in Atlanta, McDonald flopped on his friend’s couch, watching the increasingly bleak storm coverage on a big flat-screen TV. The first burst of news out of New Orleans on Monday morning had left him breathing easier. As advertised, Katrina was on par with a Camille or a Betsy—a hurricane people would be talking about for decades to come. But the storm had jogged in the middle of the night. The destruction in towns such as Biloxi, Gulfport, and Bay St. Louis, along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, dominated the news that Monday, not New Orleans. A twenty-eight-foot tidal wave had destroyed properties along one hundred miles stretching from western Alabama to the southeastern corner of lower Louisiana. Where once thriving communities had dotted the coast, the TV cameras found little beyond empty foundations, broken-off pipes, and brick stairs leading to nowhere. “I can only imagine that this is what Hiroshima looked like sixty years ago,” Mississippi governor Haley Barbour said after taking an aerial tour of the devastation. By the time the storm reached New Orleans, Katrina’s winds were blowing at 125 mph, making it a Category 3
storm. To the extent newscasters talked about New Orleans on Monday, they all seemed to repeat the same cliché: New Orleans seemed to have “dodged a bullet.”
For years to come, people would speak about the collapse of the New Orleans levee system as if it happened twenty-four hours after Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. That’s how the president and his top aides saw it even weeks after Katrina; it’s a mistake people still make today. But the city’s 911 operators knew better. Early on Monday morning, the city’s emergency switchboard was deluged with calls from frantic residents. At first almost all the requests for help were from the Lower Ninth Ward, but soon dispatchers were hearing from other parts of the city. Later, the LSU Hurricane Center figured out that the first few levee breaches occurred at around 5:00 a.m. on Monday. It just took time for the wider world to catch up to what was happening in New Orleans.
The city’s flood-protection system had been devastated. One major breach was along the Industrial Canal, a man-made waterway that separates the Lower Ninth Ward (and also New Orleans East) from the rest of New Orleans.I
The storm surge spilled over the top of the floodwall protecting the Lower Ninth, creating a trench so deep that by 7:30 a.m., two segments of the wall had collapsed. The propulsive force of the water pushed homes off foundations and devastated the northwestern edge of the Lower Ninth closest to the breach.
Other sections of the city flooded not because of breaches in the outer flood-protection system but due to failures in the drainage canals the city used to collect water after a heavy rain. Giant electric motors in two dozen pumping stations around New Orleans sop up excess rain and dump it into Lake Pontchartrain via one of three major canals that the Corps of Engineers had rebuilt in the 1970s. There were major breaches in two of these three canals, the Seventeenth Street and London Avenue
Canals, and more flooding because a section of a levee along the third, the Orleans Avenue Canal, had never been completed. The brackish waters of Lake Pontchartrain, the country’s second-largest saltwater lake, flowed into Lakeview, a prosperous white enclave on one side of City Park, and Gentilly, a mostly black middle- and working-class community on the other. There were dozens more breaches in the New Orleans flood-protection system. That proved fatal in a city that geographically resembled nothing so much as a giant bowl that sits 50 percent below sea level. By the time the lake and the city reached equilibrium, 80 percent of the city was covered in water.
Television couldn’t get enough of the images of devastation and despair once its producers learned of the flooding late Monday or early Tuesday morning. Sitting in Atlanta, Alden McDonald remembers seeing those first images out of New Orleans—of people stranded on rooftops and on elevated highways and on small strips of high ground, of entire neighborhoods underwater. No one was talking about New Orleans East, but the longer McDonald watched, the more certain he felt he was doomed. He had loaned tens of millions of dollars out to homeowners and entrepreneurs in the East, and now their properties were probably lying under four to six feet of water, unless it was under eight to ten feet. “The only thing I could think of is, All of these people lost their real estate, which I had as collateral,” McDonald said. He began tallying up what else had probably been destroyed, starting with the bank’s paper files. Most of the bank’s most essential documents—the deeds for houses, the titles for cars—were still at the old headquarters and would be underwater. Sitting in his friend’s home, he wondered if his bank’s days as an independent institution were over. “I’m wiped out,” McDonald told himself.
McDonald could have called a hundred people to commiserate. On his BlackBerry he had the private numbers of fellow bank presidents and a long list of elected officials. He had close friends he had known since childhood. Yet he kept redialing Russell Labbe, a Liberty employee whose tenure dated back to when McDonald’s office was a small room with cheap paneling in a trailer. Labbe, who grew up on the edge of a bayou, had been piloting boats since he was a child. He had also worked as a general contractor prior to taking a job as a kind of Mr.
Fixit, jack-of-all-trades, at Liberty in the 1970s. Labbe had celebrated his seventieth birthday shortly before Katrina, but he was a sturdy man who stood six feet two inches tall.
“He was calling me every hour,” Labbe said of McDonald. In McDonald’s memory “it was probably more like every half hour.” Sometimes McDonald was phoning to talk through strategies for getting into the city. Other times it was to ask Labbe what he might have heard about specific neighborhoods since they had last spoken. Mainly it felt good, McDonald acknowledged, to talk solutions rather than to stare helplessly at the television. They spoke countless more times over the coming weeks, especially while water still covered much of the city. “I must have taken fifteen boat trips in,” Labbe said. “It was always something. Something that had to be done right away. Because that’s Alden—if he needs it, he needs it now.”
McDonald was eager to get back to New Orleans. If not the city itself, then at least Baton Rouge, which was seventy miles to the northwest and a lot closer than Atlanta to his drowned-out life. If anything were to happen to their New Orleans operations, the bank’s doomsday plan called for key bank personnel to rendezvous in Baton Rouge, where the bank operated three branches. (They operated another two in Jackson, Mississippi, 180 miles due north of New Orleans.) On Wednesday, with barely more than the clothes on his back, McDonald flew from Atlanta to Baton Rouge. “Fortunately,” he said, “I took four pairs of underwear.”
Finding a hotel room in Baton Rouge was impossible. For those first few days he was in town, McDonald couch-surfed. Even when providence delivered a house in Baton Rouge to use indefinitely, the well-connected bank president continued to live like a much younger version of himself. This house that in normal times might comfortably have slept five or six more resembled a youth hostel during the summer high season. Several people from the bank, including his son Todd, took up more or less full-time residence there. And what was he supposed to do when someone such as Ronnie Burns, an old family friend who also sat on the Liberty board of directors, called to say he needed to be in Baton Rouge for a few nights? “People were sleeping on floor space wherever they could find it,” Burns reported. “There must’ve been like
twenty people staying there.” At least McDonald usually managed to keep a bedroom for himself.
EVERYONE CALLED IT THE “Southern branch,” this Liberty outpost in Baton Rouge across the street from Southern University, a historically black college that sits along the banks of the Mississippi. The branch wasn’t much to look at—a tan-brick building with a corrugated-tin roof damaged in one corner. McDonald even had considered tearing it down and rebuilding something nicer. But this functional facility had a set of back offices that would serve as a temporary command center. Long before Katrina, McDonald had thought to install extra T1 lines and store extra phones and other backup equipment on-site. For the foreseeable future, this modest-size branch housing a single ATM machine would serve as headquarters for a bank with $350 million in assets and thirty-five thousand customers.
McDonald could list a hundred things he needed to do to save Liberty, and then another hundred things after that. But nothing preoccupied his attention like his lack of a centralized computer. Tuesday came and went and still the disaster backup firm had not received a backup tape. No package arrived on Wednesday or Thursday, either. Liberty owned two mainframe computers. Yet one was underwater and the other was useless in a city without electricity. Until the computer tapes showed up in Philadelphia, no interbank networks such as STAR or Plus could monitor how much money a Liberty customer had in his or her account.
The satellite imagery the cable networks broadcast in the hours before Katrina made landfall showed a giant white pinwheel of angry clouds stretching some five hundred miles across. That was McDonald’s mistake; he had not counted on the storm’s vastness. Airports across the Southwest were affected by Katrina and packages were stacking up in Memphis, where FedEx had its main hub. Both packages McDonald had sent for overnight delivery were being stored somewhere on the grounds of FedEx’s sprawling facility. McDonald spent upwards of $15,000 to charter a plane to ferry someone first to Memphis and then to Philadelphia, once he had located one of the missing tapes.
Yet that wasn’t enough. On Friday, McDonald’s IT chief broke the bad news: the backup firm needed more from the bank before Liberty could be back on the interbank network. Worse, what was needed was inside the bank’s New Orleans headquarters. McDonald could only laugh over the tens of thousands of dollars he had paid to the recovery company about the years. “It was that or cry,” he said. Did a customer who had temporarily relocated to Tallahassee, Florida, have the money to cover the $300 she was requesting from an ATM? Who could say until the bank was back on the interbank network.
Russell Labbe didn’t flinch when McDonald asked him to go into New Orleans and pick up what they needed. “I knew this had to happen or we had no bank,” Labbe said. Discretion dictated they wait for the authorities to empty New Orleans of most of those trapped there. On Saturday, Labbe decided he would head into the city early Sunday morning. He would bring a gun, he said, because “you’d be crazy to go into that scene without one. When you have a hurricane like this, they’ll steal your boat. They’ll steal your truck. People will shoot you.”I.
The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, as the Industrial Canal is formally known, was built in the 1920s as a shortcut between Lake Pontchartrain, the enormous body of water lying just north of New Orleans, and the Mississippi River.