This is the appalling true story of a New Orleans family caught in the aftermath of the Katrina storm. The family members are Abdulrahman Zeitoun, originally from Syria; his American wife (a convert to Islam), and their 4 children. Before the hurricane, Zeitoun was a well-respected businessman of good standing in the community. The Zeitouns owned their home, a building that housed their business office, and several rental properties complete with tenants for whom he felt responsible.
The wife and kids traveled to safety, and the husband, inspired by the canoe he had bought on a whim, stayed behind. He rescued survivors, and brought food and water to people in need, and to starving trapped pets. The military and paramilitary presence in the city left the frightened citizens unable to trust anyone. Zeitoun encountered some supposedly helpful soldiers who ignored his information about a disabled preacher and his wife who needed rescue.
Zeitoun was at one of the houses he owned, with the tenant and two other men, doing salvage and repair work. All four were arrested, with a lot of gratuitous cruelty. The cops who arrested them made no effort to secure the house, so the tenant ended up losing even the few items he had managed to keep from the flood waters.
And on and on, with one horrible circumstance piled upon another. The four men were taken to Camp Greyhound, a prison compound out back of the bus station, and held in open-air cages. Eggers explores the interesting topic of the miraculous speed with which materials were acquired. In a devastated city where transportation was hazardous if not impossible, where so many other things needed to be done, the facility was built in mere days.
One of Zeitoun’s fellow captives was a man whose company had sent a crew from another state to render aid. He had documentation to prove that he was one of the good guys, but nothing made any difference. In this mini-Guantanamo, no prisoners were allowed any outside communication, and there was overzealous use of pepper-spray, and several other kinds of gratuitous maltreatment. The jailers took special delight in serving pork products to Zeitoun and other Muslims, knowing they would go hungry sooner than eat it.
All this time Zeitoun’s family didn’t know if he was dead or alive. After being moved to another prison, he was finally able to convince someone to contact his wife. Mrs. Zeitoun managed to get a lawyer, but when a hearing was scheduled, they were told that the location of the impromptu court was privileged information. The outrageous violations went on and on. Zeitoun himself was held for a relatively short, though grueling, time. The others arrested with him were imprisoned in maximum security for up to eight months. One of the four had been carrying his life savings of $10,000 in a duffel bag, which he never saw again. Another had over $2,000 disappear while he was in custody. The official position is, if you ever have to flee for your life from a ruined home, possessing only what you can carry, just make sure it’s not money. They’ve managed to screw things up to the point where only criminals use cash, and cash is proof of criminality.
When Zeitoun finally got his wallet back, the money and credit cards were missing. Even in the most disorganized emergency, there is no justification for jail personnel stealing from the prisoners. Over and over it became clear that many people who came to New Orleans to “help,” were worse than the marauders they were supposed to protect the populace from. In the experience of Zeitoun and the survivors he met with, the representatives of law and order got far too much satisfaction from being contemptuous of human rights. Here was a whole city full of people who could be kicked while they were down. It was just a big playground for brutal strangers who exercised their worst impulses with no consequences whatsoever.