Community Efforts To Save Algiers Continue Michael Steinberg

New Orleans, Sept. 10, 2005 — Efforts are continuing by grassroots organizers to preserve the still inhabited community of Algiers in New Orleans. Algiers is located on the west bank of the Mississippi across from downtown New Orleans. It was not flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and remains dry. The neighborhood has running water and electricity, and utility workers are working to get the gas on.

Roger Benham, an EMT from Connecticut who has made his way to Algiers to provide medical aid, reported on the latest developments to this reporter in a phone interview at about 5:30 p.m Saturday.

People ran out of their prescription drugs

“It’s our first full day of operating our first aid station,” he said. “We’re trying to help people help themselves.” Benham and four other heath care volunteers, including three other licensed EMTs, arrived at midday on Friday with a van full of medical supplies. At the behest of Algiers long time community activist Malik Rahim, they set up the first aid station in the Masjid Bilal mosque on Teche Street.

Benham reported that a number of visitors to the first aid station today were looking for prescription drugs they’d run out of. “Several of them were vets who depend on the VA for their blood pressure medications,” he said. “We gave out the meds we’re certified to administer. We also went to visit elders in their homes nearby today. On one housecall I met a 101 year old woman. She’s doing fine.”

Militarization

Benham had abruptly ended our phone interview Friday night. He explained that was because of the rapid approach of a military unit. “That was Civil Affairs,” he explained. “They’re going door to door doing a census. There’s also paramedics with them, and FEMA paramedics as well. They don’t quite know what to make of us. They’re trying to treat us as community liaisons.” The Civil Affairs personnel are Army Special Forces from Fort Bragg, NC.

“The FEMA medics were upset that we’re here, that we beat them to the scene, “Benham reported. “They’re fire department paramedics, one from San Diego and two from Idaho.

“FEMA’s supposed to be setting up a medical aid station as well,” he said. “So far they’ve just set up razor wire. It’s next to a private charity that’s been distributing water and food from a warehouse here.”

Utilities

Benham said the electricity had gone on the day before. “Utility workers are trying to get the gas on now,” he said. “Some people already have gas. The city water never went off. So some people can boil it already, but the authorities are saying to use bottled water.”

Forward military assets

Benham said the neighborhood is continuing to be patrolled by the Army’s First Cavalry. “The general vibe of the military is OK. Most of the soldiers I talked to are just back from Iraq. They wanted to know how we got [invited] in the mosque. We’re using the masalluh (sanctuary), and they committed a no-no by coming in with their weapons. They realized they made a mistake though.”

Benham reported that a US Navy amphibious assault ship anchored in the Mississippi River near downtown New Orleans was visible from Algiers.

At this point Benham informed me that FEMA was likely listening in on our call. “They called another of the EMTs I’m with,” he said. “They asked him specific questions about a phone conversation he’d had here.”

Benham then said he had to pause because a loud Sea Stallion military helicopter was flying over.

Medication refill routine

When our interview resumed, Benham told me that he’d asked a soldier about how people who needed meds but don’t have money to buy them could get help. “People who have money and can get a ride can go to drugstores that are operating now in some nearby towns,” Benham explained. “But if you don’t have money, the soldier said that you’d be taken to the airport and issued the needed meds. Then though you’ll be put on a plane and evacuated from the city. If you have family in a major city they’ll take you there. If you don’t they’ll fly you wherever the plane is going.

“What we need here is an MD who can write prescriptions so people can get meds we’re not registered to use.”

Rasmus Holm and Malik

Benham said he’d seen some Danish journalists in Algiers today, but other than that no media presence since his arrival Friday. “The Danish journalists had been around New Orleans before they came here,” he reported. “But this was the only part they’d seen that was still inhabited.”

Benham also said that Malik Rahim has organized more people to come to Algiers to provide relief supplies and other support.

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