08/30/2006 02:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Katrina Experience: An Oral History Project (Part III)

"We went to Kentwood [water company], opened up their thing, and took all the Kentwood trucks. We brought them on the bridge, and gave everybody some water. We helped everybody. It was a storm. They couldn't do nothing with water, and we needed it. We brought everybody who was out there gallons...all them babies need that water." -- Printiss, 24, from New Orleans, interviewed September 5, 2005.

It is important to observe August 29th, but it is also important to remember what happened in the days afterward. Today I will share a narrative with you that speaks to surviving the aftermath. This is Printiss' story.

For more information about the project, please visit

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Printiss, 24, is a roofer, from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. This interview was conducted on September 5, 2005, in the park across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center, used by the City of Houston as a shelter for evacuees. There were several people around, mostly men, sitting on the benches. The mood was calm. Towards the back of the park, several young men passed around cigarettes that may or may not have been marijuana. On occasion, Printiss got up to take drags off a friend's cigarette. He appeared tired, as if he was still in a state of shock.

The Prime Coat

They flood us out. Every time water get high, only the downtown area goes through tragedies. It don't happen Uptown. They sabotage us.

Down here, if you know these pumps don't work, you know it's hurricane season, why we ain't got somebody down here? You got money to get somebody down here and fix the pipes.

When that hurricane was over and that rain stopped, that water was no higher than right here on my leg. Now all of sudden now there's water over our house? At one time? I could see it if it's raining and the water rising--but the water just--you're just murdering people. That's straight up murder. You bring me to jail for shooting somebody in the head, and I'm going to bring you to jail for flooding these houses out.

These children. We people. You know, its lives, man. Why you get in charge if you ain't going to do what you're really supposed to do? It was like, they couldn't control the crime rate, drugs. It was at an all-time high. You know what I'm saying?

The hurricane was nothing but a prime coat. For this real paint. Feel me? I think all this here was a cover-up, to spread these people out. You know we can't really do nothing. We can't go against the grain.

I think people need to just open their eyes, really analyze life. I'm young, but I know more than the average person my age.

When the Hurricane Hit

When the hurricane hit, I was in the Florida Projects. In the Ninth Ward. Some people have first floors, but in our houses--they're new--they ain't like the old projects where they don't have no attics or nothing. They had attics. People would be able to get through their house to the top of their roof. That's what most of the people did when the water came so high. Across the Canal, if you weren't no good swimmer, or a young child, or whatever, you died. And that's just--you know, that was that. A lot of people died, man.

The police was killing people. They was shooting people. I saw the police, you know, go really over the line. In our part of the city, in the Ninth Ward, I could understand--somebody started shooting at them, in the helicopters, when they were rescuing people. I don't know who was shooting. I do know that the person that was shooting was shooting because all his family members had died. In the house already. He couldn't get them out there. Too much water. The water was over--the water was to the gutters of the roof. From right here--the water--the water went from right here, to the gutter of the roof, in what, in a couple--in about 30 seconds? 40 seconds?

I was with my parents. Everybody got split up. Right now, I'm with a partner of mine. My godchild. And my partner's wife. I don't know where my sister at. My mama...My mama didn't leave. My mama stayed in the Palace Hotel. I don't even know--I didn't talk to her. I don't know when's the next time I'm going to talk to my mom. She don't have a cell phone, or nothing.


I went all the way to the Fourth Ward to help my partner out with his family. My godchild. My children were in Pennsylvania at the time.

We had been through so many storms like this. Everybody was just worried about the storm. They didn't know that the water would ever be this high. You see what I'm saying? That the pipes were gonna bust, and then--I actually walked down Claiborne, and witnessed water coming up out the ground. Going into the water that was already there. Like it was pumping it from somewhere else. Y'all need to pump that into the river somewhere. This people too, just like you.

The water was high on Canal Street, six feet, seven feet. People dying. You walking past dead bodies. People stuck on poles. Poles going through--they had a man on Canal, right in the middle in the streetcar thing, with a pole stuck through his body. He was dead. Like he was drunk when the storm hit and fell dead on that pole. It went straight through him. Police just passing him. Peoples bodies, just...

One minute you see a baby crying, with their mama, the wind blowing hard, the next minute you see a baby floating in water, dead. The wind was blowing at a 160mph! How can a 7, 10 pound baby, a 2-week old baby, withstand all that wind? The mama's scared, she can't swim, because she ain't nothing but 14, 15, some of the girls young in our projects, in the Florida Projects, with babies. Some of the girls--I don't know what's going on, but they start off at 13 and 14 years old with babies.

Older people dying. A lot of them, dead.

The helicopters. The ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha [the blades], lights everywhere, boats, people panicking, screaming, some people even diving and swimming in the water. It just was--it's like a lot of people just didn't have God in their life because something really drastic was about to happen 'em. They, you know, the spirit wasn't in them, so they couldn't, the spirit wasn't able to bear witness with the spirit, you see what I'm saying? And they was just asleep. They was awoke. But they was asleep? You feel me?

The water smelled like oil, gas, chemicals, stuff from the stores that people was breaking in. Dead bodies in the water. Dead dogs and cats, rats. Man it took you to be strong just to walk through that water. The water was black. They had so much chemicals in that water, seem like if you would have lit a cigarette it would have blew up.

Helping People

I stayed in that water for like three days. Helping people and bringing people food and water.

First we built a raft. We went to an old tire shop, got some tires with air in them. Got some two by fours, and three sheets of plywood, and built it.

We tried to save as many people as we could. They was in their houses, trying to stay in their houses. They didn't believe that the water was going to get higher. Everybody just had hope that the water was going to go down. The people didn't want to leave their homes.

What they would say? Um, man I ain't leaving my home, what am I going to do? Where I'm going to--I'm going to have to start all over from scratch. I'm going to go somewhere and be a... Nobody wants to start all over. It's hard.

[To another young man] I told her all that man. She know we built an ark. But she don't know about the five month old baby we carried through the storm. Through the water. He a little soldier too. He a survivor. He five months old. It's raining. We walking through five and six feet a water with him. And he's holding us down. He's not crying or nothing. My partner was with his baby, Malik. My godchild.

We helped a lot of people. Me and Bobby, Printiss and Bobby. We did our thing, man. It got so bad, down in the Four, in the Fourth Ward, we had to take us a house that was up higher. And the people who was on the bridge by the Superdome and had no water? We went to Kentwood [water company], opened up their thing, and took all the Kentwood trucks. We brought them on the bridge, and gave everybody some water. We helped everybody. It was a storm. They couldn't do nothing with water, and we needed it. We brought everybody who was out there gallons, big--they had big things that go in the machines. All them babies need that water. How they gonna drink a bottle without the water?

Looting the City

After the storm was over, and that water came, people were breaking into everything. The furniture stores, the banks, the store on the corner--anything you could break in, they were breaking in.

Now people who was thinking right, like people who had values, morals, they was going in the store, getting what they needed, like food, chips, cold drinks, water, stuff that was going to be needed for the storm. The water already was rising. It didn't make no sense for you to go steal no TV.

We had old people with us. I'm telling you me and my partner, we took a house, a double house. It's a big tall like--it's a doublestory, the house is like 35 feet tall, you dig? We got to go up there from the outside. But man, we were living like--we were living the high life. The water was up to our chin and chest.

The landlord owned the house. It was right next door. The people had evacuated, so we had to get higher. We had little Malik with us. We had Parain with us. Godchild. I call him Parain. His name's Malik. I call him Parain. I'm his Parain. So I call him Parain. That's a New Orleans thing.

Getting Out

This is how I done it: I thought like the white folks.

We took one of the Kentwood trucks and we rode it down, straight down Claiborne street. We got the baby, his old lady, you know, me, and another old man we had with us, trying to get him to shelter. He left with us because he saw that we was trying to get somewhere.

We in a big ole truck--it's like a twelve-wheeler. The water was so high to the truck, the truck stopped on us. It was just floating. Then it started raining again.

When it stopped, Bobby cut it off. They got a Salvation Army on Napoleon and Claiborne. Bobby went down to get somebody with a boat. Everybody passing us up. Nobody want to come get us. They like, y'all hardheaded, y'all shouldn't even much be stuck right there right now. So they didn't come and get us.

But when we saw two guys coming from the side street with a little boat, you know, a little paddle canoe coming, I told him, this is my last twenty dollars--can you bring this baby and that lady? We was going to swim in the water if we had to, as long as the baby and the lady got to Napoleon.

When we got to Napoleon, it was easy for us to walk, from Napoleon to St. Charles. You dig? They was picking up people there--that was dry land. Everything in the Garden District--I ain't gonna say it like that, but in the Garden District, you dig, everything was dry, you know?

They done persuaded everybody to go to the Superdome, when these people right up down the street getting saved. And y'all trying to turn us all the way back around, when they've got people right around the corner getting saved? On Napoleon and St. Charles. St. Charles area, where all the rich folks. Where it's dry. They didn't have no water. But we got 20 feet at the same time while y'all are dry? This is the same city? Something ain't right.

Houston, and the Future

The Convention Center is nothing but open arms. In New Orleans, people don't--very seldom would a group of young ladies, or young men, my age, come volunteer and not get paid. You'd have to pay somebody in New Orleans to come help these people, to help us. Now, I don't know what go on in Houston, or how you all really rock, but far as of now? Man, I respect y'alls mind.

I'm tired of telling people I'm all right. Thank you, I'm all right. Man, you could be sitting nice, they've got the [cooler] right there, sitting right there, them people are still going to ask you, do you want me to get you a cool drink? If that ain't generosity, if love ain't here in the atmosphere, then I don't know what it is.

I get out of bed and work every morning, so I ain't got no problems. I had a job. The Salvation Army help me. I ain't graduated from college. I went to jail. I had a GED, but I got to get it over; they said too many people in the class passed, so we got to take the test again. I didn't cheat. I'm a certified roofer. I do roofing work. Me and my partner, we roofers. Since 98 I've been working for the same person. We're trying to branch out now, get our own thing going. We've done 700, 800 jobs. Whatever opportunities open up here for me out here... I need to have my baby fed, I need to get connected with my family. You know? They mama, I hope she got out of New Orleans.

I ain't really looking for no handouts. How I was living, you know, where I come any given time, you can build your whole foundation down there and something like this happens, and...everything we had is gone. We ain't got nothing. I've been working all my life. Hard. I ain't been selling drugs like all the rest of the young people. Doing this or that. And all my stuff gone. I've got to start all over again. But you know, I ain't got no problem with that.

I look at everything from a spiritual aspect. I know if God gave me that the first time, as long as I'm still breathing, and I've got, you know, life in me, I can do all that again.

I'm a prayer warrior. I just really got back, spiritually. Sometimes you can't be spiritual. Cause you be spiritual, you bait. Either you doing it, or it's going to be done to you. That's how it's going down. With everybody.

It was time for a cleansing. I agree with that. But you could have gone to every house and said, you've got to get on out of here, we're going to open these floodgates. You see what I'm saying? This dam is about to break.

For more about the project, please visit