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Five Nights Alone In The Dark With A Shotgun: Katrina's Emotional Toll

Gabriel Whitfield (top) and his wife, Melisa Kennedy, managers of the Best Western Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana, pose for a photograph at the bar of the hotel, 10 September 2005. Whitfield spent five frightening nights in the dark with a shotgun protecting the building from looters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. AFP photo by Omar Torres
by Mira Oberman
New Orleans LA (AFP) Sep 11, 2005
Five nights alone in the dark with a shotgun. Looters rattling at the door. And his wife and two beautiful daughters asleep upstairs.

Keeping his family safe amid the chaos and rioting that followed Hurricane Katrina has taken an immeasurable toll on Gabriel Whitfield. His once square shoulders are slumped. His steely eyes are brimmed with tears. His faith in his country is shattered.

"Do you know what it's like to sit in the lobby with a shotgun and little napalm containers to burn up people trying to come in and kill your children and steal your water?" he asked, voice cracking as he slouched forward on a chair in a darkened conference room at the Best Western hotel in downtown New Orleans.

"That shouldn't happen in America," the 36-year-old said. "There should have been people here the day it happened and there was nobody. Nobody."

Whitfield stayed in New Orleans to help his wife manage the hotel during the storm. They had enough provisions to last three or four days and set up camp in the conference room on the second floor. The guns were an afterthought: he didn't want them to get rusty if the house flooded.

The fear set in as soon as the rain let up.

Whitfield and his friend James went out to get supplies and found a Wal-Mart police had opened up. They loaded two carts with food, water, propane and medical supplies.

On the six-mile (10-kilometer) walk home they saw people being pulled out of their cars, gun-toting thugs driving up the street and were nearly robbed three times.

That was when the man who won't discuss his elite military training but prides himself on his skills with weaponry devised a battle plan.

Half the provisions were moved to a room on the 11th floor. If the lobby was overwhelmed, the women were to run there while Whitfield turned the power off to the elevators. If the looters made it up the stairs, he would blow the window open and throw his daughters across to the roof of the building next door.

It never came to that. Whitfield's stiff frame, tattooed arms and shotgun-mounted flashlight were enough to scare off the small groups of looters who skulked up to the glass lobby.

There were easier pickings outside. Like the man Whitfield found beaten nearly to death and tried to take to the Convention Center for medical treatment.

"We wanted to get him help. And the police said I don't know what to tell you. He's just going to have to die," he said. "How do you live with that?"

As Monday turned to Tuesday, and then to Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, Whitfield sank deeper into the darkness that had overwhelmed his adopted city.

He heard of a little girl found raped with her throat slit in a parking lot. He saw the bodies of the dead left lying in the streets. He saw people turned into animals out of desperation, hunger and thirst.

It got so he couldn't bear to be alone with his daughters.

"It's really hard to carry a gun and think about killing people -- bad people who are trying to kill you -- and then come upstairs and kiss your daughters on the head and pretend there's nothing wrong," he said.

Things finally changed on Saturday when the military arrived in force and the angry thousands left without food or water at the Convention Center were loaded onto buses and shipped out of town.

"When I could finally lay that pistol on the table and that shotgun in the corner and not have to carry those weapons I broke," Whitfield said. "I cried. I broke."

Two weeks after Katrina struck, Whitfield and his wife, Melissa Kennedy, are finally leaving the downtown hotel. After sending the girls off to stay with relatives, they had hoped to keep the hotel running as long as they could.

It had been their best hope for a job. There are too many out of work people struggling to make it on the outside. They also want to see New Orleans rebuilt.

But the stress got to them. And they had a new threat to face: disease.

"I don't want my family to live through this and then get sick and die," he said as he glanced over at his sister-in-law, who lay quietly in bed after having spent the afternoon vomiting.

"I can't wait to get back into the normal world. But I'm not sure how my brain is going to accept it."

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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New Orleans, Louisiana (AFP) Aug 31, 2005
For schoolteacher Jared Wood the scariest moment of Hurricane Katrina was not the killer winds or waters, it was the looter threatening to thrash him for trying to take his picture.

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