Thursday, April 19, 2018
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After Hurricane Katrina, he stayed as society collapsed

Time capsule: This is a recurring Floridian magazine feature that allows readers to re-experience some of the Tampa Bay Times' best stories with the wisdom of hindsight. This one provides an intimate glimpse into what wound up being one of Eddie Compass' last days as police chief of New Orleans. Two weeks after it was published, Compass resigned. Claims he made about savage violence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were proven overblown. He has spent years having to answer for deadly police misconduct.

"In hindsight, I felt good that I didn't overquote him," said writer Kelley Benham French, who now teaches journalism at Indiana University. "We just watched him. What's it like when you're supposed to be in control and you have none? He was just barely trying to maintain what was left of his position and his city.

"When something is so big and complicated, I try to go small. He fell asleep in his chair in front of me.

"He was exhausted, and he was scared."

• • •

Published Sept. 13, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Plenty of guns now. They even have bullets. Bottles of water everywhere. Hamburgers on the grill. Special Forces and cops from NYPD and places you've never heard of.

In the middle of this is a guy everyone seems to need to touch. Ten days ago he was surrounded by people he could not save. Everyone was looking at him, some starving, some under attack, and he felt alone, just him and his men, the ones who didn't run or disappear.

Now Eddie Compass, police chief of New Orleans, who has learned something about the limits of power and the nature of man, paces on bruised feet outside what used to be Harrah's Casino and is now a staging area for uniformed men.

Now he talks to a New York magazine. Poses for pictures. Complains that the New York Times wrote about his hemorrhoids. He has 60 Minutes later and Dr. Phil. No time for another interview now. He needs to be seen. Some officers complained he wasn't visible enough after the storm. Didn't they see him on CNN outside the convention center? He had to promise the people that buses were coming when maybe they were and maybe they weren't.

"This is when I rally my troops," says Compass, 47.

He calls them by name. Hugs them. Bumps fists with doctors and Red Cross volunteers.

Phone rings. "I'm still standin' baby! I'm the ultimate warrior!"

Huddles with the head of the New Orleans FBI. Asks him to find the uncle of his wife's obstetrician. He has been missing since the storm.

Someone asks if he's hiring. Probably soon, he says. A third of his force is missing. Maybe they are dead. Maybe they are cowards. He wishes he had a stronger word.

He asks an Orthodox priest to hear his confession, there by Canal Street.

He says the city has had zero crime in 48 hours. That he knows of. How long ago was it that he put his pistol to a looter's head and said, "Back off." He can't remember. Days. Things are coming together now.

Another phone call. "What's up, you grits-eating bitch?" It's an old police buddy.

"I'm out here fighting, shooting, getting kidnapped. They tried to take me hostage, but they didn't get me. They shot at me, but they can't hit me. I done lost 20 pounds. How am I coming across on TV?"

What would happen if he stopped moving?

His wife, Arlene, eight-months pregnant, evacuated with their 3-year-old daughter. What happens at night, when he talks to them?

Can he take a slow, quiet look at his city, at the neighborhood where he grew up, where he was captain of the safety patrol in school, at the Desire housing project where he never learned to swim, at the black water covering its streets? Can he think back on what has happened, hold still, really look?

Not now. Not with everyone watching.

The last person to leave the battlefield

He saw it the day after the storm. All the water. His old neighborhood. So many neighborhoods. "I went out in a helicopter," he says. "I watched people I grew up with. I watched people I loved."

He broke down twice in 12 days. Once he thought his daughter had been raped. The other time he gave his spokesman a day off and he drove to a parking lot and shot himself in the head.

A patrol officer killed himself thinking his wife and child were dead. They weren't.

"I'm not giving myself the luxury of dwelling on what happened," Compass says.

"Excuse me."

He's up. Striding away. Shaking hands.

He will say that what his department went through is unparalleled.

The communication system didn't work. The ammunition depot was under 10 feet of water. They had no transportation, food or water. Five hundred officers are missing.

Officers abandoned rescues to defend the streets. At the convention center, thugs preyed on everyone inside. Officers moved toward flashes of gunfire but could not shoot back. They nearly gave up on the 15,000 people inside because they could not protect them, Compass said.

At one point — was it Wednesday? — the convention center crowd surged toward Compass, shouting that if they got the chief, they'd get the buses.

Sgt. Joseph Valiente handles Mardi Gras every year. The force knows crowd control as well as any in the country, he says, but no one could have anticipated this. "It was like somebody threw a puzzle on the table and said, "Put it together in 15 minutes."'

Nearby, Compass is still strutting. "I'm going to be the last person to leave the battlefield!" he's saying, but he's losing his voice.

Filling pockets with Pop-Tarts

He just taped Dr. Phil's show, and Dr. Phil made him cry, and now he's sitting for a minute on a low concrete wall.

"You probably think I'm b---s-------," he says, all these interviews and handshaking and hugging. When he was taping Dr. Phil one spectator whispered to another that people were, you know, dying, while this was going on. The chief didn't hear that, but he knows people are dying. Of course he does.

"One of my officers just called," he said. "His grandmother just died. He passed up his grandmother's nursing home because he thought she was okay, and when he came back, she was dead."

He says he puts his face on TV so people will know that 80 percent of his officers lost their homes. They're paying for hotel rooms and running out of money. He sent some to Vegas, for a break.

He can't run off to Baton Rouge to check on his family right now. Everyone wants to do that. Lots of people have a child at home who misses daddy. Everyone working 21-hour days is running from something more personal.

"Do you know what I took with me to the convention center?" he says. "Pop-Tarts."

He filled his pockets with strawberry Pop-Tarts and handed them out. He knew it didn't make any difference really, they were gone in seconds. Like spitting in the ocean.

It was all he could do.

'Blacker than a hundred midnights'

This is what happens when he stops moving. This is what people don't see. It's just past 8 p.m. but it feels later. He's on the ninth floor of City Hall, past some bad-looking guards up a rickety elevator. He's in his undershirt and nylon shorts. His ankles are swollen and he has two sprained knees. He's wearing a back brace and his feet are kind of purple.

He sleeps here on a green cot in a hallway outside a door that says "Police Only."

He has been a police officer for 26 years, all of it in New Orleans, and he has seen people at their worst. He just never thought he would see so many people at their worst at the same time.

He remembers how dark it was inside the Superdome and the convention center. He thinks of the poem The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.

Blacker than a hundred midnights, down in a cypress swamp. "It was darker than that."

He says he isn't afraid of bullets and he isn't afraid of water. But he was afraid of the helplessness.

"I could do nothing," he said. "You've got 30,000 people. Choose. Who do I give the Pop-Tart to? Who do I give the water to? Choose."

His wife calls. His daughter Laurette is having an anxiety attack. She misses her daddy. She doesn't understand why he isn't there. She sees him on TV. He goes away to talk to them and is gone a long time.

When he comes back, he is not the same. He stares at the floor, shakes his head.

He does not know what day it is.

He sits back in his chair. He can't explain how a civilization, even a raucous one, collapsed in two days. What threads hold us together, and why do they fly apart so fast? He was the man holding the strings in those early days, and they slipped through his fingers. He understands some of the reasons. He had no radios and no ammunition and he needed help. He can explain Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It worked in reverse. People without food and water descend into chaos. Darkness creates fear.

Some of it he cannot explain. Why did they shoot at the helicopters? Why did they steal televisions? Why the rapes and murders and the muzzle flashes and screams in the dark?

"Craziness," he says. "Madness."

His eyes close. He has stopped moving. He is asleep in his chair.

A prayer for a city

When he wakes up he turns to the back of his prayer book. Last year, on his birthday, he wrote his prayer list here, just one hope.

An end to the murders in our city of New Orleans.

People will disagree, but he thinks he has been a good police officer and a good police chief. He cut crime 11 percent. But more than 200 people are murdered here each year no matter what he does. This year, on his birthday, Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

He has wondered whether God sent Katrina to purge the city. He does know that the murder rate will probably drop. It is hard to think about whether that means his prayer was answered.

It is better sometimes to keep moving.

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