New Orleans PD
When Katrina struck New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, it carried with it a tidal wave of chaos and violence. In the aftermath of the hurricane, looters plundered stores in broad daylight. They posed for pictures and talked to reporters. Bands of thugs, armed with guns stolen from pawn shops and sporting goods stores, roamed the streets. They robbed, raped, and pillaged their way across the dry parts of the city. Police stations came under attack. Rescue helicopters were shot at. Relief trucks got hijacked. Buildings burned out of control. Hospitals ran out of fuel for their emergency generators. Patients died.
"This is Armageddon," one officer said as he stood in front of a pile of rubble that had been a building only a few days before.
Throughout the city, trapped residents hunkered down. Many of them had their own guns. Some spray painted warnings on their homes and businesses. Despite the spelling error, the message scrawled across the wall of a produce company on St. Charles Avenue was crystal clear: "Looters will be shot on site."
The storm had plunged New Orleans into anarchy.
On Thursday, three days after the storm, National Guard helicopters tried twice to evacuate critically-ill patients from Charity Hospital but were driven off both times by snipers. Doctors were in the midst of wheeling patients toward the waiting helicopters when the gunfire started.
Dr. Tyler Curiel was there and described what happened: "We were coming in from a parking deck, and a guy in a white shirt started firing at us."
By the end of the week, more than 20,000 people were stuck at the downtown convention center, without food, without water. An equal number were holed up inside the heavily-damaged Superdome, and thousands more sat stranded on interstate overpasses beneath the broiling summer sun.
When asked about the rapidly deteriorating situation at the convention center, police Chief Eddie Compass said: "We have individuals who are getting raped. We have individuals who are getting robbed."
One of those charged with restoring law and order and regaining control of the convention center was Capt. Jeff Winn, commander of the New Orleans Police Department SWAT team. In 2003, Winn served as a gunnery sergeant with the U.S. Marine Corps during the invasion of Iraq. He says that what he saw in New Orleans in the days following Katrina was just as bad, maybe even worse, than what he saw during the war.
"As far as the tempo of operations and the danger of the situation, I would probably classify it as higher than what we had in Iraq," Winn says. "It got really violent."
At the convention center, Winn's team discovered three dead bodies. "One of them looked like he had multiple stab wounds," Winn says.
During one call to the convention center, Winn could see and hear gunshots as his team approached. "You could actually see the muzzle flashes," he says. But by the time he and his men pushed their way into the mass of people, the shooter was gone. It was typical of operations at the convention center. "You could smell the gunsmoke," he says. "You could see the casings on the ground. You had people cowering in fetal positions, so you knew what was going on, but the bad guys would disappear into the crowd."
But there was at least one bad guy who didn't get away.
A few days after the storm, Winn's team picked up an intelligence report about a group of armed men who had hijacked a water truck. They were reported to be on an interstate overpass, robbing people who approached the truck seeking water. There were also other, more disturbing, allegations.
"We heard they were raping women," Winn says. "We also got a report that one guy wouldn't give it up, so they killed him and threw him off the interstate."
A dead body Winn found lying beneath the interstate seemed to corroborate the information about the murder. The SWAT team started checking out water trucks. Later, as SWAT officers stopped a suspicious truck, Winn and Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann took up positions on an interstate ramp above the truck. Both were armed with M-4, .223-caliber military assault rifles.
From their elevated position, Winn and Scheuermann watched as SWAT officers approached the truck. A man jumped out. He had a gun in his hand. "We had wide-open shots at the guy," Winn says. "The guy pointed the gun at the troops and we opened up on him."
Winn and Scheuermann have no doubt that they found the right truck and that they got the right guy. After the shooting, reports of robberies on the interstate overpass dropped to nothing. "We were having all kinds of trouble up there," Scheuermann says. "After that, not a peep."