The women were on the roof of the hotel, calling for help as floodwaters rose. Then a motorboat full of policemen came by. "Can you help us?" the women cried. The policemen replied, "Show us what you've got!" and motioned for them to lift their T-shirts.
The women said no. The policemen left them there.
I figured that story for an urban legend when one of my students wrote about it in a class I teach. Too crazy to be true, I thought.
But the tale turns out to be an eyewitness account from one Ged Scott, a bus driver from Liverpool, England, who, with his wife and son, was on vacation in New Orleans when that city was swamped by Hurricane Katrina. Scott's story has received considerable play in British newspapers; as near as I can tell, it has not been picked up stateside.
Small wonder. Katrina has given us enough homegrown tales of People Behaving Badly without importing new ones.
Meaning the people whose first thought in a time of cataclysm was to smash windows and grab cell phones. And the ones who thought it a good idea to shoot at rescue helicopters. And the ones who used disaster as a cover under which to rob and rape without fear of retribution. And the ones who met would-be escapees from this madness at gunpoint on a bridge and turned them back.
As this is written, Katrina is going on four weeks behind us and Hurricane Rita a few hours away from striking the Gulf coast. We find ourselves caught in one whopper of a storm season; indeed, the National Hurricane Center is down to the last four storm names on its list for 2005. When's the last time we came this near to having more storms than names?
And yet, even among all the storms, and even among all the stories they have produced, are producing, will yet produce, this particular tale from Hurricane Katrina stands out.
Show us your breasts and we'll get you out of here?
You'll have to go some to find a better illustration of the utter banality of evil.
I'm reminded of a piece of wisdom picked up somewhere along the way: Crises, it said, do not so much build character as reveal it. Calamity, in other words, has this way of knocking down artifice and pretension, the devices people construct to keep other people from seeing who they really are. In a very real sense, you become yourself when things are disintegrating all around you.
And let's face it, more than levees broke in New Orleans. Social order broke. Police authority broke. Chain of command broke. Communications broke. All the structures we build to restrain the flood waters of human behavior broke.
Who would you be if there were no rules? What would you do if there were no accountability? What would you get away with if you could get away with anything?
Some people got away with being martyrs. Some did heroic things, some became heroes.
But some, if we believe Scott's account, could think no higher than their crotches.
You have to wonder how that request for a peep show fell on those stranded women. Doubtless hungry, doubtless tired, doubtless bug-bitten and sun-baked, and doubtless scared that they might die here, drowned in fetid water or pierced by bullets.
You have to wonder if they were stunned, angry, appalled. You have to wonder if they found it hard to believe what was being asked of them. You even have to wonder if maybe they considered lifting their shirts, figuring indignity a small price to pay for salvation.
But in the end, they said no.
We don't know what became of them. Scott's account ends with the boat motoring on and leaving the women stranded.
It is an image of petty opportunism, yes, but also one of quiet integrity and it's that part I choose to take with me as a reminder for when flood waters recede and structures of artifice are put back in place.
Even in a broken time, some things did not break.