In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, dozens of police officers failed to report for duty, as they were fleeing with their families to safety like everyone else. Those who remained were in way over their heads.
The New Orleans Police Department has long been criticized for corruption and incompetence. It is reasonable to wonder if, fully staffed, it would have been up to the task of maintaining order in the city. Reports of looting lit up newscasts, revealing a security vacuum of epic proportions.
Into the breach came the National Guard, as well as several private security contractors better known for their work overseas in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Blackwater USA, one of the biggest private security contractors in the country and perhaps the most well-known, secured a contract on Sept. 1, 2005 with the Federal Protective Service - a division of Homeland Security - to provide protection to FEMA employees arriving in the flooded city at a cost of $950 per guard per day. The company confirmed that it also took contracts with private businesses and individuals. (63)
DynCorp International LLC, the Texas company that provided personal security to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and is one of the largest security contractors in Iraq, has been awarded over $14 million in post-Katrina contracts, including the creation of a temporary housing facility for the sheriff's department. (64)
The first private security contractors on the scene, operating under hasty federal contracts, helped to rescue stranded citizens and then shifted to protecting FEMA personnel and public buildings. As looting paranoia swept the city, some even signed contracts with private corporations and individuals to protect and guard businesses and private homes.
Seung Hong, affiliated with the Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana and Safe Streets/Safe Communities, lived across the street from the Convention Center prior to Katrina and feared, while fleeing, that he would return to find his home ransacked.
"It was like watching people flee a war zone," he said. "I saw a truck with no tires, just rims, and pregnant women with kids walking."
But the gallons of water, food and electronics in his home were just as he left them when he returned.
"Rumors became news," he said. "It was totally surreal. With no communication, people started to believe that armed gangs were taking over the city."
Even state officials seemed frightened. Days after the hurricane had passed, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared, "Three hundred of the Arkansas National Guard have landed in the city of New Orleans. These troops are fresh back from Iraq, well, trained, experienced, battle tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets. They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot to kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will."
Even civilians wanted a piece of the action. Richard Bach, 46, an engineer at local television stations WGNO and WNOL, told CorpWatch that he shot a looter from his north Kenner home in Louisiana in the chaotic post-Katrina free for all.
"Crime is down because people like me shoot at looters," Bach said, adding that pre-Katrina, co-workers and acquaintances regarded him as a "right-wing gun-nut," but after the storm they lauded his foresight in stockpiling guns, toilet paper, water and other supplies.
"You live by the gun," Bach said. He doesn't know what became of the person he shot, aside from the trail of blood left behind. When asked what kind of guns he owns, he said, "You name it."
James J. Reiss, Jr., a wealthy New Orleans businessman, personally hired the Israeli firm Instinctive Shooting International (ISI) to protect the elite gated community of Audubon Place.
"Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out," Reiss told the Wall Street Journal.
The atmosphere of race-fueled fear created a lucrative market for mercenary firms like ISI, DynCorp, Blackwater, and Wackenhut. But as they poured onto New Orleans streets, questions emerged: to whom were they accountable? What rules of engagement were they bound to? And was the massive militarization of an American city really necessary?
Jordan Flaherty, editor of Left Turn Magazine and an organizer with the New Orleans Network, told CorpWatch that the city was flooded with private security convoys. Hurricane Katrina, he said, was the "inevitable spark igniting the gasoline of cruelty and corruption."
"The sheer scope of the money spent on the militarization of relief is shocking," he said.