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Memoir recounts fear and privilege during Katrina

When Paul Harris set out to vacation in one of his favorite cities, he never anticipated coming home with enough experiences to fill a novel. But after being trapped in the Louisiana Superdome by Hurricane Katrina, Harris not only wanted to tell his story, he was compelled to tell his story.

“Diary from the Dome: Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina” (Vantage Press, 2008) is Harris’ first-person account of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Harris, a California native who lives in Clairemont and works at UCSD, has traveled to New Orleans on several occasions, lured by the city’s vibrant culture and historic past.

“I think it’s the party life,” Harris said. “It’s the incredible food, the friendship of the people, the historic architecture - a real community feeling.”

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That particular trip began on Friday, Aug. 26, 2005. When he arrived, the Saints were playing at the Superdome and tourists jammed the French Quarter.

“It wasn’t until Saturday that we got word that Katrina was headed into the Gulf,” Harris said.

Despite the announcement, the city seemed to react without panic, taking the forecast in stride. Although the weather continued to be bright and humid, a citywide evacuation was declared on Sunday.

Harris checked out of his hotel and headed to the train station, only to find that all transportation out of New Orleans had been shut down. With nowhere else to go, he joined the throngs of people in line to take refuge in the Superdome.

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Harris was one of the first few hundred admitted to the makeshift shelter. He described the scene as orderly and cooperative.

“There was no feeling of impending doom,” he said, “although we knew a big one was on the way.”

That evening the National Guard handed out food and water, using the sound system to dispense information and keep things organized.

“By this time, we all thought we’d be out in a day or two,” Harris said.

Katrina hit New Orleans early in the morning in Aug. 29. Two large panels were ripped off the ceiling, and Harris said that was when the panic began.

As the storm’s fury wrecked havoc on the city’s infrastructure resulting in power outages and flooding, conditions at the Superdome quickly deteriorated. Over the next 24 hours, Harris said there was no longer centralized communication, something he called a major factor in the resulting chaos and fear. Layered on top of that: a lack of running water, no air conditioning, hour-long waits for food and a lack of information about what was going on outside the Superdome.

“We truly didn’t know if you guys on the outside knew we were here,” Harris said.

The next two days saw an increase in rumor and speculation, which fueled racial tensions. Harris said many small groups began to form, some black, some white, some European, some multicultural. For the most part, Harris said there was actually very little violence and that much of what was later reported was exaggerated.

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Harris’ book concludes with his eventual evacuation from New Orleans several days after Katrina scourged Louisiana. Unshowered and unshaven, he pleaded for a flight back to San Diego and civilization.

While writing “Diary from the Dome,” Harris reflected on the human behavior he witnessed and was part of.

“Fear can control us,” he said, “and others can use that fear to control us.”

Harris has since returned to New Orleans and the Superdome where he caught an exhibition game. The experience, he said, moved him to tears.