A ‘Rainbow Coalition’ Carves Out a Niche of Civilization

Times Staff Writer

Peter Berkowitz came to New Orleans from Puerto Rico last weekend to enroll his son in college. Classes were to begin at Loyola University on Monday, the day Hurricane Katrina changed forever what it meant to live in -- or even visit -- New Orleans.

Berkowitz, his wife and son rode out the storm in their hotel, but were forced to leave Tuesday. They made their way to the city’s Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, but found it locked.

Desperate for shelter as floodwaters rose, they headed for high ground -- an elevated breezeway leading to the raised Riverwalk shopping mall behind the convention center. There they set up housekeeping and became part of a community of stranded tourists who have managed to maintain a clean and orderly refuge in the midst of chaos.

About 75 people, almost all of them tourists, have lived under beach umbrellas, surrounded by neat stacks of cookies, chips, nuts, soda and water taken from stores in the mall that reportedly had been left open by looters. They swabbed the floor regularly, bagged their trash and maintained separate men’s and women’s “restrooms” -- plastic bags in tubs that were emptied and disinfected with bleach. Among the residents were several nurses who offered rudimentary medical assistance.


The breezeway residents were black and white, young and old -- and primarily middle-class. Below the breezeway, surviving in misery in the bowels of the convention center and the streets around it, were thousands of mostly poor African American evacuees.

“We have a little rainbow coalition up here, a real melting pot,” said Berkowitz, a lawyer from San Juan, Puerto Rico, who was shirtless in the midday heat.

Any suggestion that the thousands of evacuees living below were violent and dangerous is “racist nonsense,” Berkowitz said. While some evacuees -- a few armed with guns -- looted the mall, he said, his little group also helped themselves to food and supplies from the ravaged stores. The looters did not threaten them and even offered to share their goods, he said.

“The mall kept us alive,” Berkowitz said. “The stuff we needed was there, and we took it.”


His son, Ernesto, 17, said he felt empathy, not fear, for evacuees living under much worse conditions. “The situation is scary, but the people aren’t,” he said.

Lisa Castro, a nurse from San Antonio, and her fiance, Gerald Thompson, an electrical engineer from Chicago, also found the breezeway while seeking higher ground. They too were evicted from their hotel. They and their fellow tourists decided early on to work together to keep their living area clean and neat.

“We wanted to use this place as a resource, not to trash it,” Castro said.

Jason and Karen Weir, a couple from Toronto who were on vacation, said that until Friday their group had received no assistance or information from emergency authorities except for a few airdrops of water and military meals known as MREs. The city’s harbor police provided some medical necessities.


“At least we have places to go from here, unlike most of those people down in the convention center,” said Christine Zobniw, a college professor visiting from Toronto.

The only crisis came from Frank Witherspoon, 60, who said he had run out of heart medication. Witherspoon was shirtless, and the outline of a pacemaker and defibrillator was evident on his upper left chest.

Even with the pacemaker and defibrillator, he said, he had only 5% heart function. “I’ve lasted three days, but I don’t think I could last three more,” he said. “I could get very, very ill.”

He said he had been told by National Guard troops that the group would probably be evacuated before Sunday.


Witherspoon, who manages an antique store, said he left his house in the city’s French Quarter on Tuesday after he ran out of food and water. He was heading for the convention center when he saw people on the breezeway.

“I walked up and everything was so nice and neat,” he said. “It’s turned out to be quite a nice little oasis.”