SINCE SHE was 16, the Lisbon’s US Embassy’s Adrienne O’Neal has called New Orleans home, although she was born in North Carolina. So imagine the First Secretary’s anguish when she discovered her parents were caught up in the United States’ worst natural disaster in modern times.
“My father was in the savings and loans business, which was doing quite well in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and so he came to New Orleans to take over the only black savings and loan office in the city,” she told The Resident’s Chris Graeme.
“At that time, at age 16, I was sort of under lock and key and, since we weren’t originally from New Orleans, my parents did a very good job of shielding me from bad. It wasn’t until much later, when I had gone to college and had returned, that I got to know the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, the bars and restaurants, and all of the cultural things that New Orleans is famous for,” she explained.
Ms. O’Neal admits her parents were religious, but not overly so, but says they were strict and protective. “It was many years ago and I was raised in a good southern family,” she added.
The problem of the city’s defences and the protection of the levies came to light last year with the threat of Hurricane Ivan when the city, including her parents, were evacuated. At the last minute, the hurricane took a different turn and so, as thousands of people left the city, it remained dry in New Orleans and wet elsewhere.
“This is significant because it’s not very long ago that there was a false alarm and so the decision for many people not to evacuate this time might have been based on that,” said Ms. O’Neal.“After that, there were mini TV specials about the city, the structure, the levies and what would happen in the event of a hurricane and, unfortunately, it was all very predictable.”
There have not been any grandiose schemes such as exist in Holland to build large sea walls or sea defences to deflect the waves, and certainly she admits it was a mistake for the richest country in the world not to think along those lines.
“The problem is that for 30 years there was no hurricane along that stretch and so there was complacency. I think a project was there ready to be executed, which would have cost 100 million dollars, but they kept putting it off because of other priorities,” the First Secretary recalls.
Describing the events when the hurricane struck, she told us how she had left for the Algarve when Katrina was going up past Florida and along the east coast. “I didn’t think anything of it and went off on my vacation on the Friday with my 14-year-old nephew. When we came back, he said “Aunt Adriane look, the hurricane is going to New Orleans!”
“Then I began to call and found my parents had evacuated and were in Mississippi on the Sunday. I was reasonably relieved that they were no longer in the city and that they would be safe.
“After the hurricane hit, all communication went down and our mobile network reported that 400 towers were down. I kept calling but couldn’t get through. Then I was very worried and thought about flying there, but there would be no point because the airport was closed,” she recalls.
In the end, the First Secretary had to wait 24 hours and, after about a dozen tries, finally got through to her mother’s cell phone. “I heard her voice and then it got cut off, but at least I knew she was alive! I finally found them and they were in Alabama. My mother wanted to go back to New Orleans and I said ‘no, you must continue north, just keep driving, take your time’, and so they went to my sister’s house in Detroit, Michigan.”
When her parents reached Michigan, the next weekend they hadn’t heard from many friends from New Orleans and there was a lot of concern. The First Secretary’s sister, who was also arriving from Lisbon, said that when she got home there were also messages in Detroit from family and friends looking for their parents. Once it was determined that her parents were safe, their names were posted on the internet.
“So far we don’t know of anyone that has been killed and we don’t know the state of their house, although we have seen a satellite photograph on the Internet. Since the city is still being evacuated and there’s a lack of electricity and clean water, it’s just not safe to go back until the minimal conditions have been achieved,” she explained.
Ms. O’Neal does not believe, as press reports have suggested, that there was a slower response to the crisis because Katrina hit a predominately black city. “It was unpredictable in the sense that Katrina tricked people as it hit and didn’t do so much damage until the levies had been breached. They held for eight hours but, once the levies broke, it was already too late and the reaction could never have been on time. Once everybody is under water, whatever you do it’s too late,” she concluded.
What the Portuguese government did to help:
•The Ministry of the Economy announced that Portugal would contribute two per cent of its oil reserves to help the US assist the Katrina victims.
•Portugal made available 1,500 blankets, 1,000 mattresses, 500 hygiene kits, and 100 tents.
•The Portuguese Air Force announced that Lajes Airbase in the Azores would support transatlantic flights carrying humanitarian aid to assist the Katrina victims.