Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005
(09-08) 17:14 PDT New Orleans (SF Chronicle) — I did not actually count the number of automatic weapons pointed at me, but there were at least five, and I was certain they were all locked and loaded, or whatever that military phrase is signifying that a gun is ready to blow a hole in somebody.
“Step out!” commanded the black-helmeted man in the middle of what appeared to be a tactical formation. He was pointing a laser-like flashlight attached to his machine gun at me.
I must have been quite a sight alone out there on the darkened New Orleans street wearing a headlamp and holding a cell phone at an odd right angle, the only way I could get it to work. I had just been placed on hold.
“I’m a journalist working for The San Francisco Chronicle,” I said quickly, trying to remain calm. “I’m out here because the signal …”
“Step out here!” he interrupted, and his tone suggested that the consequences for not stepping out into the street would be dire. I stepped out.
The encounter was a sobering look into the post-hurricane reality of New Orleans. The city has been evacuated and a 6 p.m. curfew imposed. The citizens who remain are presumed to be up to no good, especially if they are out past dark.
There are National Guard, police and Army checkpoints every few blocks. SWAT teams, soldiers and military squads from as far away as Puerto Rico patrol the downtown streets, stopping anyone they see. The units often do not appear to know what the others are doing.
It is essentially martial law in the Big Easy and being outside without a press pass can be dangerous, if not deadly. I was among 17 journalists from Hearst Corp.-owned newspapers staying at a house in an upscale neighborhood on 6016 St. Charles Place, an area that was spared by the flood.
Hearst Corp. hired six armed military contractors, led by former Navy SEAL Chris White, to protect the house and journalists, presumably from looters, but also from arrest by police or the military.
There is no electricity and only sparse telephone service in the city and the water supply is assumed to be contaminated. The journalists tramp around the flooded city by day and work by flashlight on their laptops at night, slapping at mosquitoes in the heat and sleeping on the floor.
Cell phone service is sporadic, requiring writers to move from place to place on the lawn, deck and sidewalk to find a connection. That explains my location out on the sidewalk sometime after 9 p.m. Wednesday.
As I waited, headlight shining on my notes, for the person on the line to return, I saw out of the corner of my eye shadowy figures in crouching positions moving across the street toward me.
As I looked up, they seemed to be taking firing positions, men on either flank, two more behind cars and the man in the middle shining the light. They were a New Orleans police SWAT team and their guns were pointed directly at me. I made the decision not to slap at the mosquito that was siphoning blood out of my arm.
“Do you have ID?” I was asked. I tried to explain that it was in the car and the keys were in the house. “Do you live here?” “What are you doing here?” The questions came rapid fire, under the threat of a bullet.
Just then, White and his compatriots rushed out of the house, without their guns. The SWAT team turned toward them, rushing down the street for the expected confrontation.
“Don’t point your f—— gun at me!” White shouted, and an already tense situation turned into a hair-raising standoff. I slipped back into the house while the two sides worked out their differences without, thankfully, any gunfire.
“That was totally unprofessional, pointing their guns at us like that,” White complained when he returned. “The Army has been patrolling this street for a week and they know what’s going on here. All the police had to do was ask them and they would have known everything they needed to know about this street.”
Then, as we journalists prepared for another fitful night of sleep, White commanded everyone’s attention for an announcement.
“I’m asking that nobody go out in front anymore after dark,” he said. “It’s just too dangerous.”
E-mail Peter Fimrite at email@example.com.