When Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans in 2005, thousands of men, women, and children were locked in the city’s notoriously dangerous jail, Orleans Parish Prison. Some were locked in their cells for days as sewage-contaminated water reached their chest and as the jail lost power.
As New Orleans once again finds itself in the crosshairs of a natural disaster, local jail officials say they won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. “Definitely not,” said Orleans Parish Prison public information officer Phil Stelly.
But it’ll be a true test for Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who is in charge of the Orleans Parish Prison, which has since been refurbished. Gusman oversaw the many failures at the facility in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and continues to hold office today. Around half of the prison’s estimated 1,300 inmates have not yet been convicted of a crime.
Tropical Storm Barry intensified to a Category 1 Hurricane on Saturday as it crawled toward the Louisiana coast. It’s expected to make landfall in the afternoon. Meteorologists warn that a Category 1 can actually be worse for flooding because of its slow pace. And it’s the flooding that local officials are most worried about.
When Category 5 Hurricane Katrina hit, there were 50 levee failures, including the levee protecting the coast from ocean storm surges. But the Mississippi River’s levees held.
Now, the river is bursting at the seams after months of heavy rainfall. As of Saturday morning, the levees were still holding. The crucial waterway could surge and even overtop its banks — and bring potentially devastating flooding to New Orleans.
Right now, the river surge is expected to reach 19 feet, and the levees only protect against surges up to between 20 and 21 feet.
Jefferson Parish Correctional, with an inmate population of 1,200, is located just feet away from the banks of the Mississippi, and not far from the levees. But Capt. Jason Rivard, commander of public affairs at the jail, said Friday that they're not concerned about a major flooding event and do not plan to evacuate the facility at this time. “We do have a plan to get them safely out,” Rivard added. “Our jails are equipped with generators in case. We got fresh water, food, everything. We’re prepared.”
So far, only Plaquemines Parish, located in a swampy, low-lying bayou area, and parts of Jefferson Parish, are under mandatory evacuation order. Plaquemines Parish prison, which has an inmate population of 554, started evacuating inmates Thursday morning to facilities in the city of Monroe, which is located inland.
Residents in New Orleans proper are currently being advised to shelter in place. On Friday, sheriff's department spokesman Stelly told VICE News that inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison, which has a capacity of 1,438, would be evacuated should the storm intensify to a Category 2 hurricane or higher. They also activated part of their emergency evacuation plan, said Stelly. They’ve shuttered the Temporary Detention Center, which was originally erected to house inmates following Katrina, and transferred inmates to the main facility, the Orleans Justice Center, which Stelly says is newer and more modern.
Stelly said that, in keeping with policy, the court approved the release of about 60 inmates who were initially detained on low-level offenses.
“Staffing levels are good,” said Stelly on Friday. “Now we’re just preparing to hunker down through the night, and we’ll take it from there.” The jail carried out a “mock evacuation” at the beginning of hurricane season, and Stelly said they’re ready to evacuate inmates if necessary.
Gusman’s failures after Katrina were laid out in a scathing report by the American Civil Liberties Union published one year after the hurricane. Officials at the jail had grown increasingly concerned about his decision not to evacuate the Orleans Parish Prison facility, (which ultimately closed down in 2015) despite warnings of heavy flooding. Gusman said that he eventually called the Department of Corrections to request evacuations upon learning that generators were failing and some parts of the prison were filling with water. But deputies told the ACLU that the evacuations only began after they went over Gusman’s head by calling the attorney general to request reinforcements.
The prison staff who were left behind told the ACLU that Gusman’s actions put their lives and the inmates’ lives in danger. In some parts of the facility, inmates were rioting, setting things on fire, and breaking down walls. “They were angry and mad,” one medical officer said. “We had no idea if they would take a hostage.”
During Katrina one 13-year-old girl was placed in an area adjacent to an adult male holding area, the ACLU reported, where she was forced to use the toilet in view of men. She spent “days in water up to her neck” and was eventually rescued by adult prisoners.
The level of preparedness Stelly described stands in stark contrast to what former jail employees described to the ACLU after Katrina. They said they’d received next to no training or emergency preparation. Gusman acknowledged that the emergency plan was inadequate months after the storm, according to the ACLU — he said no plan was in place because “no one ever imagined we would be surrounded by 7 to 8 feet of water.”
It’s unknown how many inmates died there during Katrina. Gusman has stated repeatedly that there were none. But prisoners and deputies described seeing dead bodies while they were at the jail. “There are dead inmates in there still,” deputy Luis Reyes told a reporter in 2005. “When the guards were doing their last sweeps, there were one or two here and there.” Some 517 inmates were unaccounted for immediately after the hurricane. The overall death toll from Katrina is also unknown; new outlets reported a range of 1,200-1,836.
Cover: Police watch over prisoners from Orleans Parish Prison who were evacuated from their prison to the highway due to high water September 1, 2005, in New Orleans. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)