Friday, October 10, 2014

Hurricane Katrina (The 10th Year After-draft) "7 Years Later" Continued Part 11 CONCLUSION

Things winding down and boats being pulled from the water, we loaded Sam and Gigi into Morgan’s boat.  We partnered with another crew and left to give the Governor’s Office a brief tour.  We sped north on Reed Boulevard, the main “canal” providing access to the area.  The water level went quickly to six feet, partially covering homes, schools and businesses.  The Lake Plaza Shopping Mall eerily sat like an island in the new lake that was a parking lot a few days before.  Crossing under Interstate 10, the water level dropped, then rose again quickly on the north side.  We passed a partially submerged MacDonald’s and a strip mall, then glided into deeper water as we moved toward Lake Pontchartrain.

Some houses remained submerged below their rooflines.  We passed a white rabbit and a domesticated duck floating on debris, survivors still close to their cages.  A block before the levee, the water level was too shallow for us to continue.  From an officer in the other boat, we determined that a nursing home on Haynes Boulevard, that our nurse friend had hoped to check, was actually miles away and inaccessible from our location.  We then accompanied the other boat to a residential area its NOPD passenger had asked to check.

Heading east, we entered an area of much more expensive homes than those in the areas we had been working.  Their value did nothing to protect them from Katrina’s wrath.  We motored through the quiet suburban streets through an area that appeared to be a central lake around which many of the homes had been built.  The expanded lake lacked visible banks and now consumed gazebos, docks and boat sheds.  Flocks of ducks flew and set as we passed.  At one point, I imagined Morgan reaching for his shotgun thinking of duck gumbo.

We idled around the lake while Sam and I discussed what had happened with the storm.  He referred me to a book named “Rising Tide” written years before.  It analyzed the 1927 flood, the reaction to it and the political battles that ultimately shaped the Flood Prevention Plan and course of action followed by government since then.  In the wake of Katrina, he told me that the book was climbing the best-seller list again.

Winding down, ready to go home, and the adrenaline flow cut off, fatigue began to set in.  It was time to go home.  No doubt, those waiting for us at the dock felt more strongly about that than we did.  We began to head back.  We passed SUV’s and two story brick homes, down the tree lined boulevard, past the assisted living high rise and back to Reed Boulevard.  We turned south to begin the last leg of the journey.  We passed Memorial Hospital and, almost as an afterthought, I remembered the preacher with his hospice patients.

We had not had any word since someone had made contact with him earlier that day.  The report then was that two of the patients were hanging on and he was not leaving them.  Presumably, as hospice patients, it made better sense to let them pass in peace in their beds rather than forcing a “rescue” upon them.  The preacher’s commitment to them, to his job and to his conscience would ensure that they were treated with the best attention and dignity that could be provided under these circumstances.

Morgan drew the motor to an idle and circled the hospice.  Finally, after we passed around three sides of the building without obtaining a response, a man emerged on the second floor roof of a wing of the 10+-story building.  We threw him an MRE.  He held up his hand, thanked us, and informed us that he did not need food.  He offered us gasoline, as he had to our comrades a few days before.  He reported that there were still two patients alive.  Appearing almost apologetic, he told us that one patient had passed on and he needed to move her from the room she occupied with one of the remaining living patients.

There was no hesitation from the R & R guys.  Within minutes, the boats were docked near the building.  We climbed onto and then crossed the long metal shed covering the submerged cars in the parking lot, to climb onto the second floor roof to join the preacher.  A strong smell of decaying flesh hit us in the face almost immediately.  Our imaginations created vivid images of what we might find inside the hospice.  Upon entering, we were met with only a mild odor, similar to what might be encountered in a functioning nursing home.  Later, we were to discover that the stench on the roof came from the carcasses of two giant Rotweiller dogs that had unsuccessfully ridden out the storm under the building’s large air conditioner condensing unit.

After entering the main building, we noticed a room to the left in which two beds were positioned with their feet perpendicular to each other.  On one wall to the left was an area that the preacher had apparently used during the six days since the storm, to sit and read or listen to news reports on his portable radio.  A scented candle burned.  In one bed was an elderly lady, occasionally making barely audible and unintelligible sounds.  We began to refer to the preacher, whose name was Greg, as Chaplain.  He let us know that this lady continued to refuse any kind of sustenance or medication, but she continued to hang on.

Occasionally, the elderly lady’s eyes opened slightly revealing bright crystals that certainly glowed inside the face of a beautiful spirit in her youth.  On her back, she held the bedrail with one hand.  I thought of my mother and my godmother, small, beautiful women who had lived into their 80’s.  Both now gone, they each had beautiful eyes and boundless spirits that embodied everything that is New Orleans.

Next to the other bed, Chaplain Greg stood with the last piece of white medical tape he used to secure a clean white plastic cover over the patient who had recently passed on.  After all of this time, under unimaginable conditions, Greg still maintained an obvious respect for this lady’s dignity.  He asked that we move her to an occupied room, but informed us that the bed on which she rested could not fit through the door.

My mind began to consider options and the problems presented by each.  As I stumbled mentally considering each, the best and only solution came simply and clearly out of the mouth of one of the R & R guys, problem solvers who spend their days creating solutions.

“We’ll move only the mattress and bend its side as we move her undisturbed through the doors”.

The task proved to be only mildly awkward, as her frail frame added little weight to the mattress.  She was gently moved to an unoccupied room where the mattress and its occupant were placed onto a bed.  She was left to rest in peace.

Outside of the room, we entered a typical hallway you might see in any small hospital.  All but one of the doors were closed and each had a clean white sheet stuffed underneath.  The door casings were sealed to the door with white plastic tape, as was the sheet to the bottom of the door.  I counted eight doors in that section of hallway.  The chaplain slowly closed the door, placed a sheet at its base and began to seal off this one in the same fashion as the others.

In the room next to the door being sealed by the Chaplain was the second patient.  We were told she was in a great deal of pain, suffering the final stages of cancer.  The nurse asked the location of IV equipment and liquid morphine to provide her some relief.  Greg said he knew of none, and that he had never seen any of the patients given IV’s.  He qualified this with the comment that he was “only the chaplain”, presumably meaning he had limited knowledge of medicine and medical treatment.  He did say that he had managed to periodically administer morphine orally to her to alleviate her pain, but that he had only one pill left.

Gigi checked out available medications, and did what she could to comfort the two ladies.  Presumably, we would exit shortly to return home, leaving Chaplain Greg to his task.  My fatigue had obviously blinded me by this time, to some things that should have been obvious to me.  The stark realities confronted in the last few days had apparently hardened my otherwise overly empathetic nature.  I was ready to go and knew that Boss-man Ronny and his crew at the highway knew nothing about what we were doing.  I was sure they were ready to go as well.

The nurse noticed that Greg was coughing and was physically and emotionally drained.  Despite his efforts to seal off the rooms, he could not protect himself from the potential disease he would come into contact with among the now deceased former patients.  He had to go, and the only way to get him to go was to rescue his last two patients.

Focus on the ladies created a dilemma.  Do we “rescue” two ladies who have chosen hospice care because they want to die peacefully?  To do so would require them being carried into the bright sunlight, something they certainly had not encountered in many weeks, if not months.  Then they would somehow need to be lowered into a small, metal fishing boat and carried to the side of a highway with only hope of transport being provided.  Their ultimate destination might be a crowded makeshift medical care facility across town at the airport or one arbitrarily chosen by whoever might be driving the land transportation.  Also, Greg had professed for a week his intention not to leave.  He wished to remain with the ladies to provide whatever attention, care and solace he could while they remained on this earth.

Focus on Greg and a potential long life ahead of him removed the dilemma.  His health would be endangered if he stayed and appropriate arrangements could be made for proper removal and care of the ladies.

The wheels were in motion.  Assured that the patients would be treated properly, Chaplain Greg was told to pack his things.  Ronny was informed of the situation by walkie-talkie.  Our friends from NOPD stood by on the roof outside, and began attempts to summon helicopter transport.  Within 20 minutes, a medi-vac helicopter hovered overhead and lowered one of its crew onto the roof.  Quickly, it was determined that air rescue would not be possible.  The roof was too small to land the chopper and it could accommodate only ambulatory patients.  If we could bring the patients by boat to the interstate overpass, air transport might be arranged---“might”.

Contact with Ronny back at the highway confirmed the availability of ground transport.  He had made arrangements with a passing Navy vehicle connected with a medical ship docked in the Mississippi River.  Always prepared, Ronny sent one of the larger flat bottom boats along with three men and two metal, mesh “baskets” designed for transporting injured oilfield workers.  Awaiting their arrival, we set about the task of preparing the ladies for the most comfort we could on their impending journey.

The bottoms of the metal stretchers were lined with pads to try to avoid direct contact of the ladies’ frail bodies with the rigid mesh carriers.  The large construction workers laid each lady gently into position.  Each was covered with a clean white sheet and secured by stretching disposable “ace” bandages repeatedly across the top of the carriers over the sheets.  Before being carried into the bright sunlight, their eyes were covered with a small pillowcase after we assured them that the purpose was to protect their eyes on the “little boat ride” they were about to take.  At the edge of the roof, the head of the carrier was secured with rope.  Maintaining as much of a horizontal position as possible, the baskets were lowered one at a time down to four men in the boat a floor below.  The baskets were placed gently on the deck of the boat, one on each side of the center console.  A perfect fit.

The boat motored away to unload the fragile cargo along with the complete medical file of each lady.  The boat also carried the complete medical files of the various deceased patients who remained at the facility.  Sam’s intention was to see that family members were contacted in hopes that they would be consoled with the knowledge that their loved ones had not been deserted.  In no more than two or three minutes, they would be at the highway and placed in the Navy transport vehicle.

Out of the door and onto the roof came Chaplain Greg, dressed and carrying his bag.  For the first time, he expressed how elated he was to see our boats.  Clearly, he was thankful that a solution to his situation had been found.  He had family in Slidell he needed to contact.  With the twin spans of I-10 crossing over the lake destroyed by the storm, he intended to walk across the Highway 11 Bridge to Slidell.  Instead, Sam offered him a ride out of the City, to assist him in reaching his destination and to see that he was not caught up in the evacuation of others being dispersed to all parts of the country.

In the shallow water near the highway, the boat could not offload directly onto dry ground.  To allow Chaplain Greg the respect he deserved, a ladder was found and a makeshift gangplank fashioned to let him exit the boat without having to wade in the dank, nasty waters.  Our goodbyes said, we cleaned up with bottled water, and discarded shoes and shirts hoping to shed the smells, tastes and germs of the day.

The decision was made to return to our Canal Street campsite before returning home.  Some media people and the young lady who had worked side by side with us after joining our force the day before, would be dropped downtown to retrieve their vehicles.

A few media crews and rescue and recovery workers with supplies and communications replaced the crowds of displaced residents, which had filled the elevated highway just three days before.  A large fire department from a few states away had set up a tented headquarters on one shoulder of the road.  The sky was filled with helicopters.  The City appeared otherwise empty.  “Dewatering” of the cluttered, ravaged City was projected to take 36-80 days.  Utility service and water might not be available for a month or more.

We returned to downtown past the Convention Center.  A few people wandered amidst the huge mounds of smelly debris and chairs on the sidewalks and in the streets.  The foot of Canal Street and the Harrah’s headquarters was busy with fresh workers and their shiny emergency vehicles from generous communities all over the country.  The trolley tracks were vacant and our rag-tag bunch pulled into our reserved spots.

We considered trying to put together a group photo, but opted instead to hit the road.  Ronny declared to everyone that he had decided now to get rid of his New Orleans “condominium” to move back home.  As many as could, shook hands with Capt. Bayard, each thanking the other with obvious respect.  We left in a proud line, the R & R logo now recognizable to many law enforcement officers and our fellow volunteers.

On the west bank of the river, the traffic flow had increased.  Approaching Boutte, and the entrance to the I-310 leg that would return us to our I-10 route home, some traffic lights were now working.  Our group got splintered and used three separate return routes home.  We each spent the Labor Day holiday catching up with family and friends and watching unending news reports from the scene we had just left.  Back home, back to reality, our familiar surroundings provided us with comfort, but we realized we were each changed by our experience. The reality to which we had returned would be forever different.

I called and thanked Ronny Lovett for making something possible for me that would not have happened without his generosity and compassion.  He had certainly impacted thousands of lives because of it.  He dismissed it as simply the right thing to do and discussed returning if other help could be provided.  With no regrets, our bodies and minds began to recuperate and to adjust to our new reality.  We did not know what the future would hold for the City of New Orleans or its residents.  We were gratified that we had been able to be a small part of helping the city right itself so it could begin its long road to recovery as a new, New Orleans with its old heart and soul intact.

Hurricane Katrina (The 10th Year After-draft) "7 Years Later" Continued Part 10


By that Thursday afternoon, I remained unsettled.  Apparently, so did Ronny.  With no discussion, Ronny informed me that he wanted to go back.  Knowing that circumstances and security were changing daily, we began to try to obtain some source of legal authority to regain entry to the City.  With knowledge that St. Bernard Parish remained under water and essentially inaccessible, discussions ensued between our friend, Sam Jones with the Governor’s Office, and Senator Walter Boaso, who represents this area east of New Orleans and south of the area of our previous mission.  The parish was not accessible by road.  Bounded on the west by the Industrial Canal, on the north by the Intracoastal Waterway, on the south by the Mississippi River, and on the east by marsh and the Gulf of Mexico, access by boat was virtually impossible, due to the extensive levee system.

We were hopeful arrangements for access could be made with authorities because there was great need for boats inside of St. Bernard Parish.  That parish had suffered the double whammy of storm surge from the surrounding waters of the gulf and the lake followed by rising water caused by failures in the levees.  Word was that many houses were still under water and many residents remained trapped.

The plight of the New Orleans area pulled on my homegrown heartstrings and also on the sentiments of the R & R guys, who by now had adopted New Orleans as their own.  Intent on planning better and equipping more thoroughly, a 3:00 a.m. Saturday departure was fixed.  To avoid a repeat experience with poorly structured layers of obstruction referred to as “staging areas” by Wildlife & Fisheries officials, we opted to go with the options presented through Senator Boaso.  Our only choice would be to try to access St. Bernard Parish from the west bank of the Mississippi River.  We were encouraged when informed that the ferry between the west bank of the river and St. Bernard Parish at Chalmette was operating.  With the word out, we had the potential to join with other groups and accumulate an even larger contingent to enter the troubled area.

We left a little later than scheduled and met with a few delays.  Shortly after sunrise we approached the LaPlace roadblock.  Our entry was not so easy this time.  The reference to the long line of boats and volunteers in tow did not gain us immediate passage.  Dropping references to the Governor’s office, to Sam Jones and to Senator Boaso were still met the officer’s reluctant consideration of our request.  He wanted a letter.  I was incredulous that a written authorization would be necessary since we understood that all arrangements were in place for our entry.  No one mentioned a letter.  I maintained eye contact and as honest a gaze as a lawyer can muster.  He waved us through but cautioned us,

“You won’t gain entry to the city again without a letter’”

“That’s OK”, I thought, “We plan to stay downtown.  This is the last access we will need.”

My confidence wavered as we approached a second checkpoint on the west bank of the river just east of Boutte.  More vehicles were being turned around than were being allowed to pass.  As we approached the City from up river, we noticed the outlying areas coming back to life.

On this fifth day after the storm hit, traffic on the highway had increased dramatically.  Some of it consisted of locals, but most of the vehicles carried workers, supplies and equipment to be used in the rescue effort.  The stranded masses had by then been transported out of New Orleans to shelters all over the United States.  Later, it was reported that the million or more residents of New Orleans relocated by this storm was the largest redistribution of population in this country’s history.

The officer at the roadblock asked for our letter.  Again, some name-dropping and the reference to the number of vehicles and workers who had traveled from Lake Charles sufficiently legitimized our group to allow us through.

“Don’t come back without a letter”.

As we entered the West Bank Expressway, signs of normal day-to-day activity all but disappeared.  There remained a significant number of law enforcement, emergency and support vehicles streaming into the City.  Three police units sped by with sirens blaring.  Up ahead they gathered at a convenience store responding to a call, presumably a “looting”.  That term came to be loosely used with exceptions apparently allowed for hungry and thirsty people looking for food and police officers looking for the same or for equipment to assist in their operations.  Which type it was at this location was not apparent, as we did not slow.  We barely glanced at the scene as we passed.

With the drop of the Senator Boaso’s name, access and an escort were to be provided at the last checkpoint before the Crescent City Connection.  With the contingent of workers and equipment, our hopes were that the plans would unfold as expected.  No such luck.  The lone officer at the barricaded entrance to the City acknowledged that he had heard something about us on his radio.  He allowed us entry to the west bank roads leading to the Algiers ferry landing across the river from Chalmette, but provided no escort.

The Cajun convoy moved toward the general location of the ferry.  The devastation here on the West Bank was from wind more than flooding.  We stopped at one point with access blocked by fallen trees and power lines.  At the stop, a young lady drove up and stopped to talk to some of our group.  From her distinctive drawl, she was clearly a native of New Orleans.  She offered gasoline and directions, and asked that we allow her to join in our rescue efforts.  We agreed.

She directed us to River Road, where we were forced to travel for approximately two miles on the sloped side of the levee to avoid the string of power lines and poles blocking River Road.  The trucks and boats managed well with only the mechanic’s truck nearly bogging down in one of the areas of soft wet ground.  The flat bed trailer carrying the cases of bottled water stacked and strapped to it, began to shift and listed to one side.

We were encouraged as we saw signs of the final approach to the ferry.  Then we came upon the sight of two monstrous ferryboats grounded at 45º angles on the river side of the levee.  High and dry.  We stared at the beached bottoms of the ferries glaring back at us over the levees and looked at the mighty Mississippi.  We began to consider our options.  It did not seem that there were many.

Another group of three boats with whom we had coordinated had arrived shortly before us.  Mike Nodier and his group had been drawn to the rescue effort by Mike’s connections to the area.  Raised in New Iberia, Mike had lived for an extended period of time in the area, in St. Bernard Parish.  That was his destination, come hell or high water.  His obsession with getting in to help old friends and neighbors in St. Bernard burned in his eyes as we plotted together in Lake Charles the day before.  Nothing was going to stop him from getting his group in.

Nodier’s group informed us by walkie-talkie radio to continue on the levee to the launch.  Again encouraged, we proceeded along the top of the levee past a bend to the anticipated launch site.  The “launch”, as they referred to it, was a concreted portion of the levee sloping at a 45º angle to a wet grassy area adjacent to the river.  It was obvious that this “launch” would handle only the smallest of boats behind the biggest of 4-wheel drive trucks.  Again though, discouragement did not obstruct progress, and before we knew it, “NuNu” had a flat- bottomed boat in the river ready to go.

Radio contact with the lead group confirmed the presence of a law enforcement relief operation in the Chalmette slip across and up river from our location.  My careful, conservative senses were stretched to their limits as the small skiff sped into the current of this country’s largest river.  The adrenaline flow was again kicked up a notch.  As I strapped on my bright orange life jacket, the best I could manage from my boat mates was to have them politely accept the personal flotation devices I handed to each of them.  They placed them on the deck of the boat as Nu-Nu gunned the motor and headed upriver.

Approaching the Chalmette slip on the other side, human activity was obvious on two ferries floating at the entrance.  We exited onto a three level tugboat that we later learned was one of the many vessels commandeered by the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office.  A high-ranking law enforcement official pointed to a passing officer, noting that he was carrying the “keys to Chalmette”, a large pair of cable cutters.

It was first suggested by the Chief Deputy of the sheriff’s office that we could set up guard posts on levees at key locations of entry into the parish to prevent entry by criminal elements.  I corrected the misimpression of this gentleman, telling him that we were construction workers and not trained law enforcement.  We were promptly provided free access to a large crew boat and any equipment that we might see that we could use to assist us.

“Take whatever you need.  We have confiscated everything on the river from Chalmette to the parish line”.

On board our new vessel, the next task was to retrieve our crew and the thousands of bottles of water that we had brought.  By the time we had left Thursday morning, there remained tens of thousands of people in the area who could not get drinking water.  We were determined to do what we could to fill this void and Ronny had negotiated with a local Wal-Mart store to buy every unsold bottle of water they had on hand.

The listing water trailer was backed part way down the levee.  A human chain was formed from trailer to crew boat across a flat boat, and 2,000 bottles of water were passed for transport.  With bottles and crew on board, our return trip to the St. Bernard operation began, less a small security force left with the vehicles,

On arrival at the Chalmette slip, the hope for mechanized removal of the water was scuttled and we formed another water line up the 25-foot wall of the dock.  Onto pallets and away by commandeered forklift, the bottled water moved one step closer to its intended destination.  Images of folks on rooftops and trapped in attics kept the troops motivated.  However, it quickly became apparent that rescues by boat would not be started from this location.

There was need for repair of a roadway adjacent to the slip and two or three of the group began this task.  Projected to be a two-day job by the new operators of the facility, the work was complete in less than an hour.  By this time, the head of the operation, who had chosen to cool his heels with the security force on the west bank, lost his patience.  Ronny summoned the forces to return, declaring that we had not come to build roads but to rescue people.  He declared that we were going back into the City to return to the area of those we had left three days before.  Failing all else, we would rely on our ability to charm the gatekeeper at the foot of the Crescent City Connection.  Our options would be subject only to the limitations of our ingenuity.

Turning off of River Road, we came upon an unintended roadblock caused by a gathering of various vehicles.  Among them was an NOPD unit.  Generous and cooperative officers patiently attempted to communicate on the sole channel available to the entire department.  Their purpose was to help us to try to reach Capt. Tim Bayard, our downtown contact with the keys to our Canal Street campground.  They managed to reach him and received instructions to direct us to Carrollton Avenue at I-10 where we would launch into the water from the interstate.  He informed us that he would be unable to provide any law enforcement support for us.

By this time, it was after 2:00 p.m. and we knew that our time in the water would be limited.  Despite this and the 95 degree heat, we were excited about the gate to the City being opened and our deployment to our defined task.  We were also pleased by the officers’ offer to escort us, additional security that our access to the City would not be impaired.  We crossed the Crescent City Connection, necessarily heading west in the eastbound lane to avoid high water covering the eastbound lanes of the interstate up ahead.  I noticed our early and unexpected descent down a ramp in the vicinity of the Superdome.

The Dome had become the center of international media attention while it housed twenty–five thousand or more as a shelter of last resort to those who could not or would not leave the City during the approach of the storm.  Now empty, the crowds were not an issue.  Instead, the knowledge that the area of the Superdome was under water was my concern.  Near the base of the down ramp, the escorting officers realized that this single lane ramp was not only the wrong route into impassable waters, but it was too narrow for the 17 vehicles with boats to make U-turns.

Each vehicle began the tedious process on the narrow down ramp of unhitching, manually turning and re-hitching each boat, large and small.  Delayed for over 30 minutes, the frustrated recovery team moved again toward its destination, longing to launch their boats and crank their motors.  The productive recovery effort of the previous Wednesday was still fresh in their memories, and we all wanted to duplicate it.

Eventually we were able to enter the correct area of elevated interstate.  The Wednesday morning scene of thousands of displaced residents wandering along the shoulder was replaced by the accumulated trash of those who had lived on the road after the storm until their transport out of town.  By the time of our entry on this Saturday afternoon, resources had finally been provided to sustain the stranded residents and then to transport them to a better place.

Back at ground level, the adjacent areas appeared nearly deserted, with the exception of an occasional pedestrian wandering aimlessly on the shoulder of the highway.  After parking in the left lane of the usually bustling eight-lane interstate, we exited our vehicles and ourselves began to wander, trying to determine how to get the boats in the water.  A large man, clearly wet and frustrated, approached us on foot.  He appeared angry and ready for confrontation, perhaps uncertain about how we might greet him.  His demeanor changed immediately when we offered him a cold bottle of water.  He gratefully accepted and stayed to talk briefly before continuing his trek to somewhere.  After much trouble launching boats from the slightly inclined interstate, we encountered shallow waters.  It was past 5:00 p.m. when all boats reached the assigned area near the Carrollton Shopping Center.

By this time, the scene that media was presenting to the nation seemed unreal and unbelievable.  From our position on the ground, or in the water, those descriptions were woefully inadequate.  As dusk began to fall, “surreal” again came to mind, in addition to “eerie”, along with some “scary” thrown in as our flatboats quietly glided closer to the edge of old New Orleans.  Without law enforcement escorts or presence, we idled slowly through the waters, occasionally thinking of our vehicles left in the care of our own patrol, armed with hand guns, shotguns and automatic weapons.  A member of another civilian security force had warned us at the dock, to stay out of certain areas.  His warning had been supplemented by his mimicking the firing of a rifle to indicate why the area to be avoided was unsafe.

The smells on this sixth day after were consistently present and intermittently overwhelming.  In the shadows of the tangled interstate overpasses, a lone man sifted through his acquisitions of the day stuffed into the small storage compartment of a wave runner.  At the first major intersection, we passed two poor souls who didn’t make it.  Both were in final resting positions that were difficult to understand.  One rested on both knees in shallow water in the inside travel lane of Carrollton Avenue.  It appeared as if he had been stopped in his tracks and brought to his knees while trying to cross the street.  His face was submerged and squarely planted against the pavement.  The other rested on his back on a high piece of neutral ground near the Palmetto Street Canal.  His body was rigid and facing the sky with only his elbows, heels and buttocks making contact with the ground.  His face grimaced as if frozen in the split second of a nuclear blast.  Some speculated that higher waters may have brought them there and dropped them into these strange positions after the waters receded.  Others suggested that heat and natural processes just caused them to draw up.  Each remained grotesquely positioned amidst floating household items, debris and the stench that had accumulated after the storm.

Almost as soon as the last of the 10 boats entered the area, five could not be located.  Our entry without a plan then relegated us to an effort to locate and recover our own people.  During this effort, it became obvious to all of us that we would not achieve the high level of recovery that we had reached three days before.  We encountered some folks intent on staying in their homes to protect their stuff, despite being told that lights, water and dry land in a few days was not a reasonable reality.

Here in these deserted neighborhoods, we first encountered boaters who appeared to have questionable motives.  In those encounters, the occupants of each boat appeared content not to create any controversy.  Each waved off the other politely as the boats passed each other to continue their respective missions.  Fanning out into a makeshift grid pattern, we continued to search for our comrades.

In the long shadows of the afternoon, I was struck for the first time with the New Orleans that might now be forever lost.  Much of the architecture of the City is unique and defines the City as distinctly as does the spirit, character and vitality of its people.   All of it is connected in one way or another to the City’s historic diversity.  Realizing that the sites I was experiencing in the nearly deserted metropolis would be experienced by few and recorded by even less, I borrowed the last nine shots of a disposable camera from a boat mate.  This provided only a few shots of a limited area, but I knew these would convey enough information to family and friends to give some sense of the enormity of this disaster.  It might preserve some memory of a part of this historic City that I began to realize could be forever lost.

We returned to our starting point and were relieved to see the remaining boats heading back to our launch in the right lane of I-10 next to Xavier University.  We trailered the boats then moved toward the trolley tracks at the foot of Canal Street in hopes that the same location would provide us a place to rest for the evening.

Sticking with our attempts to be more prepared for this trip, we stopped periodically to retrieve a few of the hundreds of unopened boxes of bottled water lining the interstate.  Evidently it had been too much, too late brought to those who by this time had been transported to their new temporary homes.   This water would allow us to wash the sweat, the smell and hopefully the bacteria from the new city swamp off of our bodies.  I stopped my truck to retrieve from the highway shoulder 20 gallons still packed and sealed in the original containers.  The water had baked all day in the sun, and provided promise of something close to a warm shower that evening.

We entered downtown as if we owned it.  An impressive line of vehicles, the length of a small Mardi Gras parade, we rolled into our spot on Canal Street as if it had our names on it.

We shared MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) provided to us by City police as we sat on the beds of our trucks and recounted our stories.  We laughed that national media was reporting a City run by armed thugs ruling the streets.  We had occasional contact with family by text message and spoke with NOPD officers who had not seen their families since before the storm.

During one of the stops on interstate to retrieve water, one member of our group happened upon a junior high math book amidst the debris and opened it in curiosity.  Inside he found a 4 page hand-written letter to no one in particular.  It appeared to detail experiences of the writer during the storm and the days after while he was confined in the Superdome.  It was difficult to read due to the writer’s apparent limited education level, but it was fascinating.  We took turns reading it by flashlight, as it was passed around carefully and handled gently to avoid damaging it.

During the night, a contingent of mules galloped past, chased by police.  A cool front came through providing relief.  The 42-floor Sheraton Hotel lit up briefly, amidst the downtown darkness, a sign of hope to those who were awake to see it.

Much was different on this Sunday morning compared to four days before when the Dome, Convention Center and expressways were jammed with frustrated people.  By Sunday, the buses, planes, water wagons and National Guard had arrived.  The Dome and Convention Center, once overflowing with anxious evacuees, was now occupied only by mounds of stinking debris and garbage next to unopened cases of bottled water.  The City was silent but for the passing helicopters that filled the sky.  The radio carried stories of snipers and criminals.  Some told of bands of thugs roaming the streets reducing law enforcement to defending a single building from the rooftop.  We saw none of that, but knew that we were not seeing the entire City.

Capt. Bayard described the intended missions that would move up Canal Street or target possible retrieval of families in the Carrollton area, which we had explored briefly the night before.  We expressed our desire to return to the search area of New Orleans East where we had left folks who expected us to return.  Capt. Bayard agreed and deployed us to that area again.

Each boat was to be assigned a law enforcement officer and boats were to work in pairs.  Though we had not witnessed the reported criminal element, stories being told indicated that many of those who remained in the City might be up to no good.  Awakening around daybreak, we were more relaxed.  The most popular gathering spot was around the Coleman coffeepot brought on this trip by one of the more practical thinkers in the group.

The plan was to deploy back to Reed Blvd. at 7:00 a.m.  Around 6:30 a.m., a young lady in her 20’s and a gentleman in his 50’s entered our trolley track campsite with plastic i.d. tags hanging around their necks.  From CNN, they inquired about our group and were directed to Ronny.  They wanted an on-air live interview.  Ronny wouldn’t do it.  He designated his legal counsel as spokesman.  We explained that we had little time due to our planned 7:00 a.m. deployment with our NOPD friends.  We moved a block up Canal Street to meet Soledad O’Brien, formerly with the weekend version of the NBC Today Show.  She had recently moved to a more prominent position with CNN as host of its Morning Show.

I was disappointed to see the cameras positioned to show the collapsed brick wall of a two-story building as a backdrop for the interview.  I thought the impression given viewers of a downtown New Orleans akin to London after the Blitzkrieg was unfortunate.  A rescue and relief effort rejuvenated with fire and rescue personnel from across the nation was bustling less than a block away on Canal Street.  It seemed to me, that would have been a more accurate and appropriate setting to show.

I was asked about our group and its activities and got to tell about the generous group of guys and a few of their amazing stories.  Asked about the violence and turmoil, I honestly told Ms. O’Brien that we had seen none of it, and that we had slept safely in the beds of our pickup trucks on Canal Street the night before.  The interview finished, I returned to the group after agreeing to allow her to accompany us in one of our boats later that morning.


Soon loaded in our vehicles, we were pleased to be accompanied by two ambulances with EMTs, in addition to our law enforcement contingent.  We moved east through the area of the Convention Center past the blocks and blocks of garbage and debris.  The City was virtually silent now, but with new smells.  Noticeable was the increased presence of law enforcement, National Guard, and emergency personnel from towns and counties across the country.

We glided quietly onto the nearly deserted interstate cluttered by boxes, trash, bottled water and other remnants of the bus loading areas thrown up on the expressway during the days before.  Past the clutter and through the bumper-high water again, our line returned to Chef Menteur Highway.  In the shadows of the overpass and the location of the Wednesday blockade, three men shuffled through the debris of the now deserted temporary settlement.  Though we saw no violence or criminal activity, we remained on constant guard for what might happen.

At Reed Boulevard, the increased amount of trash since our last visit was a sign that a significant volume of people had been brought through the area since we left.  The stench of the garbage joined with the pungent odors emanating from the launch site.  The water was now blacker and seemed thicker than it did on Wednesday.

The first boats launched sped off with their impatient pilots and without escorts to the high-rise assisted living facility to check on our few friends left behind.  A short time later we were happy to confirm that the facility had been emptied and cleared by NOPD since we had left.

Also different than our previous trip, those in charge professed their intentions to grid the area and organize the search.  After a planning session among law enforcement, boats began spreading to five launch areas spread out over a five-mile stretch of The Chef.  Before the last six boats could leave, a sudden spike in intensity was obvious as officers received sketchy radio contact of an ongoing incident

From one of our boats at Reed Boulevard, a homicide investigator, in cutoff camouflage pants, an NOPD shirt and knee boots, jumped to dry land.  With radio in hand, he let loose a string of exclamations apparently directed to those who were the topic of the radio conversation.  Our impression was that a group of bad guys with guns were in our area in gunfights with law enforcement.   I was only a little comforted by the fact that on this trip, our group had come well armed with handguns, automatic rifles and shotguns.  I had even found my 12-gauge shotgun hidden on a shelf in my closet, and held it close for comfort.

Deployment of boats stopped as the drama developed and the situation unfolded.  Four of the culprits were down, apparently on their way to meet their Maker.  Two or three were still engaged with officers.  Eventually, we learned that a group of six or seven had descended upon a vehicle crossing the area of high water that we had crossed ourselves.  Their intentions were to carjack the vehicle.  The culprits were not aware that a well-equipped contingent of law enforcement approached the scene close behind the vehicle the bandits sought to misappropriate for their own use.  Word was that law enforcement prevailed in the confrontation.  From then on, we held our weapons a little tighter and at the ready.

Less than an hour later, chatter on the police radio channel increased again.  We heard,

“Officer down in a boat …Reed Boulevard and Pressburg … fired on”.

That was two blocks from our base.  It was our boat and our guys.  Four more boats were scrambled into the water.  Word was that the SWAT team or tactical contingent would go out in boats to the scene of the incident.  Minutes passed and an officer exited a police unit arriving at the scene.  He was clearly angry that “they” had the road blocked and the Tac Unit could not pass, apparently referring to some other arm of law enforcement over which he had no authority.

Again, like Wednesday night, we found our guys potentially in harm’s way, and were helpless to do anything.  From the area of the call, smoke bellowed into the air from an obvious fire.  Still no word.  Four boats sat still in the water, their drivers armed and ready, awaiting the SWAT team.  Ronny was ready to go, armed with an automatic rifle and standing in a boat like George Washington in the famous painting of his crossing of the Delaware River.  The ranking NOPD lieutenant at the scene told him to “Stand down”, but Ronny either did not hear him or ignored him.

Law enforcement’s single radio channel was cracking with chatter of officers trying to evaluate and respond to the situation.  That effort was briefly interrupted by someone, oblivious to the unfolding drama, requesting drop locations and telephone numbers for clothes donations.  A frustrated officer politely asked for the channel to remain clear for handling of this more urgent situation.

No sniper located, it was eventually surmised by those of us as the “launch” that the house fire had ignited rounds of ammunition in the house.  Upon the return of our biggest vessel, a 25-foot bay boat, we heard the rest of the story.  Upon seeing the smoke, Shannon had steered the boat into the vicinity of the fire.  At a point about ½ block from the fire, the boat stalled.  With the boat temporarily dead in the water, the rounds of ammunition inside the burning house began igniting.  The poor policemen, probably from traffic patrol, reported being under fire and the boat down in the water.  Adrenaline had flowed at the scene and in everyone tuned to the lone, fractured radio channel.  Though now clarified at this location of the incident, stories would certainly expand around the metropolitan area recounting increasingly exaggerated versions of the confrontation between police and snipers.

This Sunday was clearly going to produce less evacuees and more risk than the Wednesday before.  For the rest of the morning and into the scorching afternoon, the boats covered the grid methodically.  Occasionally, they would return with an area resident.  More often it was with stories of those who refused to leave their pets, their homes or their stuff.  By early afternoon, Capt. Bayard personally appeared to thank the R & R crew and to inform us that the effort was moving from rescue to recovery mode. Speculation by some public officials by midday Sunday was that there might be 10,000 dead on the streets and in the flooded homes, hospitals and nursing homes of the City.

With Timmy Bayard were a crew from the New York Times and “someone from the Governor’s Office”.  Upon seeing our good friend Sam Jones, who helped coordinate our gate passes in St. Bernard Parish, I gave him a hug and was introduced to Gigi, a nurse who accompanied him.  Sam had become a close friend to Sara and me during the previous two years.  His generous and sympathetic nature paired with his political astuteness and quiet enthusiasm was a unique combination in the current political arena of uninformed bipartisan bickering.  It also was the bond that made our relatively brief friendship seem as if it had been lifelong.  I never managed to speak to the New York Times group.

Hurricane Katrina & NOLA (The 10th Year After-draft) "7 Years Later" Continued Part 9



Upon returning to the Chef Menteur ”dock” we had lukewarm water and sodas to choke down giant white pills given to us by someone with NOPD.  We were told that these were to fight off infection we might contract from being in the stagnating water and all that with which it was mixed.  Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that the water in which we had spent most of the day was any different than the water of Lake Pontchartrain in which we swam as children.  Then, we were only occasionally deterred by periodic warnings following rains due to elevated bacteria levels.

Sara’s empty stomach reacted violently to the medication.  She spent most of the return trip with her head buried in an old Burger King cup that she periodically emptied out of the window.  It was not a pleasant ride back for her, for this and other reasons.

As the setting sun began to cast long shadows on the highway, our group headed back down The Chef toward the City.  We were joined in a single line by Louisiana and Texas Wildlife vehicles, various law enforcement officers and other rescue groups.  Local radio still reported large crowds in the Superdome without food or water and masses still accumulated on the elevated interstate.  Locals wandered The Chef outside of buildings battered by the storm and by those in search of food, water, auto parts and electronics.

Again, the word “surreal” occurred to me as the apt description of the scene, but that was soon to be an understatement.  Slowing to pass cluttered portions of roadway, we were passed by four or five people in a mail truck.  They did not appear to be postal service employees.  Then, along the sidewalk drove an odd piece of equipment about 10 feet tall, resembling a sort of lift truck.  With two occupants, it sped by of us as fast as it could go, toward the interstate.  As our line of trucks and boats reached the interstate overpass under which we needed to pass to regain entry to the City, it came to a halt.

From my position about 10 vehicles back, I gazed toward the overpass.  Across the road I could see the mail truck, the lift truck, an 18-wheeler, a U-haul, various vehicles and maybe as many as 200 people.  Whether they wanted attention, food and water, or a confrontation, it was clear that this was an intentional roadblock.

Not for the first time, and not for the last, I thought about my children back home.  The two youngest, in first and third grade, had some comprehension that mom and dad had gone to help people.  The older three, in college and beyond, were scared and somewhat angry with us.  None of them could have imagined that their crazy parents were at that moment surrounded on three sides by floodwaters and stalled at a roadblock by hungry, frustrated and angry strangers.

Gradually, in a subdued but obvious show of force, law enforcement vehicles and Wildlife & Fisheries trucks with boats in tow glided toward the overpass along each side of the stopped caravan.  The large pickup trucks with their dark, tinted windows, and flashing lights moved to the front.  With black barrels of shotguns and long rifles in open view, they eventually provided sufficient encouragement for the blockade to yield.  The line of haggard, good Samaritans passed, lacking any resources to allow them to offer transport, food, water, or shelter.
Was this final adventure of the day?  Not by a long shot.


Local radio reported that the levee breaks had still not been sealed, but that the levels in the lake and City had equalized.  We did not know if that level would allow us to again pass safely through the water to return to our downtown campground.  Fortunately, this was not our next adventure.  Within a few minutes, our water passage safely accomplished, we moved on the elevated interstate toward the Superdome.

News stories confirmed that no food or water had arrived.  Transport out of the City had still not been arranged for those stranded by the storm.  In the Superdome, the “shelter of last resort”, 25,000 or more stranded citizens dreaded the prospect of a fourth night in the un-air-conditioned Dome with limited food and water.  On our return, we passed uncounted thousands on the 5-mile stretch of interstate.  It was not until we exited to travel the last half-mile from the interstate to Canal Street that we came face to face with the most graphic indication of the extent to which the situation had mushroomed during the course of this Wednesday.

Our line approached the area of the Morial Convention Center, outside of which a few hundred individuals had wandered the sidewalks the night before.  Tonight the streets were clogged like St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras Day, only there was no celebrating and there were no beads.  My internal adrenaline pump moved to “MAX”, as our parade came to a halt surrounded by the crowd.  Television reports of various riots and NBA victory celebrations with overturned vehicles in flames ran through my brain.  I did not know the state of mind of these masses of people, and all sorts of wild imaginings ran through my head as we sat stalled in their midst.

I worried for the boats of my generous comrades who had ventured into the City, not understanding all of what they had agreed to do, or what it had evolved to be.  Next to the car, a young man walked onto a large piece of plywood on wheels teetering on the curb.  “BAM!”  Sara and I jumped.  Her continued problems caused by the medication and lack of food only heightened her reaction to the sudden loud noise.  If this did not snap us to attention, the single gunshot heard moments later did, though we never saw a gun, a shooter or a victim.

After about five minutes of anxious waiting, we made the turn and moved smoothly and safely through the crowd.  Not a scratch.  Our space still “reserved”, we parked three wide and 12 deep on the “neutral ground” of Canal Street.

No group works harder or better than the R & R family.  Their leader has somehow instilled in them his own work ethic and pride in providing a quality product.  They also play hard, and playing often involves beer.  Lots of beer.  It was a clear indication of the seriousness with which they undertook this mission that their coolers were packed with water and cola, but not beer.

Our crew discarded its infected clothes and cleaned up with disinfectant wipes or bottled water or bleach.  Lacking chicken or pots on which to cook gumbo as this group would normally do, each of us chose a spot on the curb, or on a tailgate, to feast on chips, crackers, warm Coke and bottled water.

A long day over.  Time to rest.  Well, not yet …


The NOPD command center was abuzz across the street under the covered drive in front of Harrah’s Casino.  The heightened unrest at the Convention Center obviously contributed to the elevated level of activity of the police.  Tonight, the Tactical Unit, or SWAT team, was huddled together in full gear, fully armed and 40+ strong.  There was no shortage of adrenaline there either.

Barely three blocks from the masses at the Convention Center, our position was far from secure.  In the event of problems that the small contingent of police could not contain, we were sitting ducks, barely armed with nowhere to go.  The mighty Mississippi was on one side and Canal Street was under water just six blocks away in the other direction.  To the north was the French Quarter, high and dry, but it was bounded on three sides by water.  The only dry exit route required passage by or near the Convention Center.  That route provided the only access to the river bridge and the outside world.  At what point does a body exhaust its capability to produce adrenaline?

In this atmosphere, everyone independently began considering whether to stay or leave.  Our supplies were low and our hopes to get fuel at the police command were dashed by the absence of the fuel truck that had been there the night before.  We knew that there were more folks to pull out; especially those in the high-rise, but safety now seemed to be a very real concern.  Simultaneously, we were listening to local broadcast radio stations, law enforcement radio communications and discussions between police personnel across the street.  Our communication outside was limited to text messaging on some of our cell phones, and we began to report in to those family members we could reach.

Sitting at the wheel of my parked truck, I was startled by a police officer who appeared at the driver’s window of the truck without any warning.

“We need your help, sir.  Are you in charge here?”

That I might be in charge was an impression that Ronny allowed to occur in his attempts to avoid being cast into the limelight.  Much of the communication with outside authority had passed through Sara or me.

I responded, “What do you need?”

The young SWAT officer explained that two of their team had not returned from a late afternoon assignment, and, being unable to contact them, four others had been sent in to a flooded downtown neighborhood.  None of them had been heard from and it was now nearly 9:00 o’clock p.m.  They wanted boats with operators to get members of their unit into the area north of Claiborne Avenue on Esplanade Avenue between Broad Street and City Park.

Esplanade Avenue begins at the northeastern corner of the French Quarter and runs west-northwest to the south end of City Park.  Though still an impressive thoroughfare of large stately homes along oak lined sidewalks, it had aged and lost much of its original luster.  Like most of the City tonight though, it was a dark foreboding canal, inhabited by unknown characters, with unknown motives.  The lawyer in me wanted details about the mission and questioned the sanity of sending three out-of-towners with no knowledge of the City on a search and rescue mission wearing only T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes.

My concern heightened as the members of the Tactical Unit gathered around encased in their body armor and armed to the teeth.  The only “plan” suggested was to go into the area and look for the men until they were found.

Eventually, the officer said, “Look, you’re either gonna help us or you’re not.  It’s up to you.”

Ronny was brought into the conversation. After 10 minutes, he noted in frustration that the officer had told him three different stories while trying to engage our help.  Tensions were high.  Unknown dangers, whether real or imagined, appeared to be all around.  Now some of the group was being asked to carry three boatloads of tactical specialists into the dark bowels of “New Venice” to rescue six armed officers whose fate was unknown.  The choice was soon removed when the desperate officer declared Marshall Law, commandeering the boats.  Of course, Marshall Law was not in effect and he had no authority to commandeer the boats, but it was his last resort.

Ronny Lovett would never force his people to put themselves in danger or do what he would not do himself.  No doubt his heart was heavy and his concern great.  However, I suspect that he was close enough to this crew of high-spirited adventurers to know that there would be at least three willing volunteers.  The boats were promptly manned and on their way to launch off one of the I-10 exit ramps near Esplanade Avenue.  For 5½ hours, we did not know if we would ever see them again.  When they left, we did not know for certain that we could hold our position until they returned.  Two things were certain:  We were not leaving until they returned, but we were leaving when they returned.

By now, Sara had a new cause and forced herself to recover from the three hours of retching, nausea and headache caused by the unknown medication and lack of food.  She sought out the captain of the Tac Unit.  He only thought he’d had a hard day before the moment she found him.  Eventually, a dialogue developed as he became aware that our group was there at the request of the governor.  Of course, this was a slightly exaggerated impression Sara created with an appropriate stretch of the facts under the circumstances.  The Tac Cap feigned regret over his officer’s unilateral declaration of Marshall Law to commandeer the boats, and he provided no less than five apologies.  More would have come had I not interrupted him.  I explained that we would be pleased if the mission would be successful and our friends returned safely.  In that case, I told him his apologies were unnecessary.  However, if they did not return safely, his apologies meant nothing.

All day we had worked side by side with members of the Narcotics Division of the NOPD and we had befriended each other.  That group was outraged that the Tac Unit had infiltrated our ranks and stolen our people as they did.  It made for a colorful discussion to pass the next few hours while we waited without word.

Near midnight, a troop carrier exited Canal Street into the light of the covered Harrah’s drive.  Cheers erupted as officers in SWAT gear and fatigues greeted each other, two even hugging.  This appeared to be their lost comrades, but we got no report on the status of ours.  I crossed the street and asked the Tac Cap for a report.

“We got radio contact and the boats are on their way”, he said.

Half an hour later, not knowing if “on their way” meant by water or land, I was told that they were about a mile away.  45 minutes after that, I was told they were about ¼ mile away.  Finally, by 1:30 a.m., our guys drove up to our cheers and celebrations.

During the 5½-hour wait, nearly the entire contingent of police across the street had, at one point, scrambled and sped off in the direction of the Convention Center.  It was immediately apparent that we were on our own, both now and should there be problems later.  It was also clear that whatever trouble might be brewing three blocks over, had not resolved.  As they rushed off, Capt. Bayard, at the end of his 18-hour day, yelled,

“There are not enough of you to deal with them.”

No one listened.  Fortunately, about 30 minutes later, they returned.

It became evident later that the crowd was not confronting the police.  A small, despicable, criminal element, that was despicable and criminal before Hurricane Katrina, was confronting, intimidating and assaulting the beleaguered crowd at the Convention Center and the police when given the opportunity.  There was no way to know that from our time and place.  Upon return of our three boat captains, available fuel was dispersed and we were off at 2:00 a.m. for Lake Charles.

Our trip was diverted to Boutte, south of New Orleans, so we could drop a nurse who was anxious to see her husband and kids.  She had worked side by side with us, and Ronny had promised her a ride despite the late hour.  She was so grateful she cried uncontrollably during the last half mile of the trip on the final approach to her home.

After fueling up south of Baton Rouge, our vehicles eventually separated, each to make their own way home.  Barely able to see due to fatigue, Sara and I traded off driving about every 10 minutes.  By 6:00 a.m. Thursday morning, we arrived home.  We bathed and crawled into bed thinking we would sleep away the day.  I awoke about 3 hours later, rested but restless.  I began to think about New Orleans again.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Katrina and the Cajun Navy (7 yrs later) - Pt. 8

This is the ninth installment on this topic.
To read from the beginning please go to entries beginning 9/20/12.

1010 Lake Forest Blvd
(7 years post-Katrina)

Returning from the stairwell filled with mostly elderly folks, I pushed through the chest-deep water back to the closest boat, now positioned in the corner of the meeting room at the base of the stairwell.  Though only a few feet from the base of the steps, no-one could access the boat without submitting themselves and their senses to the chill of the murky waters or by being carried.  As my thought process moved from the initial encounter with the residents, into planning logistics, my eye caught movement from a room to the left, adjacent to the meeting area in which we were now "staging" removal of the patient souls in the stairway.

To my surprise, I saw what clearly appeared to be a young family. Dad in chest deep water, maybe in his early 30's, mom a few inches shorter, each carrying a small child aged maybe 6 and 8.  They plowed through the water as a unit moving toward the meeting room, and from their expression, decidedly toward the first boat.  My first reaction, considering those in line positioned in the stairwell to wait their turns, was that these youngsters were not following  the certain protocol I had already formulated in my mind.  They were not lending proper respect to the old folks organized in proper fashion as if they had each drawn numbers to be serviced in order and with appropriate decorum.  This young family was "cutting".  In this makeshift rescue by untrained organizers, for a moment, it kinda pissed me off.

In the wisdom of the moment it struck me that, this young family was as anxious to remove itself from this indefinite aquatic isolation as were those in the stairway.  It did not appear that either group was aware of the others.  Even if they had been, my experiences later in the day would fortify the notion that among those ready to leave, "first come first served" would, in many cases be the primary protocol.  For efficiency, the young family was placed into the first boat and pushed away toward the exit allowing the next small craft to drift into place.

With the first four rescued and a few more aluminum craft drifting in to begin moving those in line, Sara ascended the first of many stairways in the building to begin her floor-by-floor “evaluation”.  Within minutes, many of the residents knew Sara's name and she knew theirs.  Instant friends.  Once the situation was assessed, I left the transport to others and joined Sara inside the building.  With my hiking boots filled with water, and my clothes saturated and dripping, I accompanied Sara up into this unexplored territory to learn the specifics of what we would be facing.

She had determined that there were no less than 10 residents at least partially confined to wheelchairs, and half as many recent surgery patients still on the mend.  Many of those who were ambulatory were weak or impaired with bad knees, legs, backs and the like, although there were a few younger families with preschool children.  We discovered that the living situations for each resident were uncomfortable but not yet intolerable.  The building housed its occupants in comfortable though not extravagant apartments.  Without running water or electricity for nearly three days, refrigerators could have held remnants of bottled water on hand before the storm.  Freezers sparingly opened and food cabinets could still hold essentials for their owners' sustenance.


We heard of a group of headstrong male residents who had moved to the roof and were bonded in the brotherhood of a permanent encampment.  As the stories went, they were staying, come hell or .... well they were staying.  We did not immediately investigate stories of them lighting campfires and refusing to leave as there was adequate need within the confines of the enclosed floors.  There were 10 or so others who declared their decision to stay, but all others were ready to do what was needed to get into a boat.  They needed no knowledge of their destination.

Occasionally, during the constant flow of boats from this location and many others in the area, I would periodically return to the "landing" to monitor the situation and coordinate, if necessary with the retrieval of residents.  "In America" anyone would expect resources and personnel to be available with coordination of efforts to transform the chaos of a natural disaster into an organized and fluid recovery.  Not yet!  As the day progressed, it became painfully obvious that the “seamless” coordination of rescue and relief operations promised by FEMA had not yet materialized.

Those brought to the road by boat were dropped in the blazing sun, on the smoldering asphalt shoulder of the highway to wait for land transport.  Their wait was excruciatingly long, but they had no choice but to remain patient, as they had nowhere else to go.  All they could do was sit, without water, without food, without their animal companions and without shelter.

Transport vehicles appeared to wander into the area without schedule or plan.  Rather than "first come first served" it became more "survival of the fittest" as many of the weaker and less agile would be brushed aside by those who best positioned themselves to enter whatever kind of wheeled transport might arrive.  Those unable to gain entry on one wagon,would wait for the next carrier to unpredictably come by.  Again, I was aggravated that this did not fit the mold of my upbringing.  However, we were forced to accept that this discourteous unfairness was just another layer of skin on this big onion that we were not equipped to deal with.
Officers and some kind citizens attempted to care for the frail and injured, and to provide priority access for those not strong enough to fend for themselves. All in all it was a situation under limited control with little organization. 

As the day wore on with the prolonged intense heat and crowds on the roadside growing, it began to eat at some of us that many folks were not feeling “rescued”.  Their placement on the highway to bake in the sun for hours, to await transport, occasionally by bus, but also by U-haul truck, open troop carrier or dump truck, was not what we envisioned or what they deserved after the ordeal they had already been through.  We had no knowledge or control over their destinations.  Our job was to get them out of the water.  We had no information, authority or input beyond that.

The high-rise residents who were able, filed out of their 168 apartments.  They ventured one-by-one, down the dark stairwells to the dock-less boat mooring.  When their turns came, they would submit to partial submersion in the increasingly acrid waters before entering one of the tin can units of the rescue flotilla.  For the entire day, our clothes saturated and skin wrinkled, we stood chest deep in water assisting each passenger. 

Those who did not need to be lifted into the boat were directed to step onto the underwater chair positioned next to it.  This provided us with assistance in getting each of them above the 4-foot water level and the additional foot and a half over the edge of the boat.  Mickey Monceaux, an 11-year charter employee of R&R, assisting those who could not do so themselves, lifted more that a couple of tons of passengers into boats during the course of the day.

Between boatloads, we would clomp up and down the stairwells, boots weighted with water, sweeping the building for those remaining.  In the later hours, those remaining presented the most challenges.  This was not due to their demeanor, as they were cooperative, kind and appreciative.  These has limitations that prevented them from crowding into the stairwells to await their turns in line for debarkation.  Despite impediments, the ones who couldn't make it to the submerged dining area to the bouncing watercraft, were nevertheless ready to go.  They expected to leave like everyone else, and they expected to do it today  Unfortunately, the circumstances evolved to the point that some would have to wait through the night... and  perhaps beyond that.

A late afternoon survey revealed four residents in wheelchairs who could not walk down the stairs, even with assistance.  One of those, a charming and pleasant lady named Connie, much younger than most of the other residents, had a serious brittle bone disease.  She was encouraging, but made it amply clear that we would risk seriously injuring her if she had to leave her electric wheelchair.  It occurred to me that housing wheelchair bound residents in a high-rise with no generator backup for elevators showed little forethought or no concern.

We considered trying to carry her from her chair down the many flights of stairs, but in our fatigued and saturated state, we risked injury to her and to ourselves trying to negotiate down the wet, slippery stairs.  We considered moving her down the 6 or 8 flights in her wheelchair, but I had discovered earlier that day how bulky, unwieldy and extremely heavy these electric wheelchairs are.  It had taken four of us to move each of three other electric wheelchairs without occupants earlier in the day.  Connie was scared to go and she was scared to stay.  Although the sun was still shining, we had no options.

In one of the hallways, on a mid-level floor, lay a gentleman in his 60's or older, on his back, either sleeping or unconscious.  I learned later that he had unfailingly assisted Sara throughout the day in locating and organizing residents. Now at 5:00 p.m., he was passed out in a hallway.  “Diabetic coma” we were told by a gentleman who we guessed was a relative or a close friend.

In an apartment, we found two residents recovering from recent surgeries.  With their spouses, they were packed and waiting in anticipation at the doors of their apartments as if expecting a taxi to arrive to drive them to the airport.

The boat returned with the news that there was no insulin for our diabetic friend, no other medical resources and no further land transport that afternoon.

Those remaining had physical impairments of some kind, limiting their mobility at very least. Earlier, I had asked each of them if they wished to risk injury by being moved with our limited resources, and each had said yes.  As the daylight was waning I returned to inform each of them that we could not take them that day.

I could only relate this information to our unconscious diabetic friend through his nephew who would stay to tend to him through the night without medication.  We lifted that gentleman off the floor and into his wheelchair and I mustered some weak words of encouragement for his nephew.  I felt helpless and guilty that I was leaving them for the night.  The only consolation was that they were better off here in familiar shelter than left on the roadside to fen for themselves.

We plodded wearily down from the upper floors, one fight at a time, checking each level for residents.  Almost desperately, one of the long-married couples called to me as I walked away.  Seated in their living room, dressed and prepared to leave, they let me know they would be ready at daybreak.  I nodded and assured them that they would not be forgotten.

Connie, the lady with the brittle bone disease and confined to her wheelchair, sat at her spot by the window and looked toward the city's skyline over the flood waters.  As everyone seemed to be doing mentally, she struggled openly to comprehend it when I told her the entire city looked like the view out of her window.  I emphasized that no one knew when it was going away.  On her shoulder sat a parakeet she referred to as “her life”.

Although Connie was usually surrounded in this building by hundreds of other residents, she was essentially confined to her chair and to this space due to her condition.  This bird represented something akin to family to her.  Now, it was only her and her parakeet, being left to stare out the window at the sky, the moon and the water while contemplating what life held for her next.  She beseeched me to promise that I would return in the morning.

Many of these occupants were at times in their lives that they had little more than themselves and the possessions contained in the confines of their living quarters.  Their lobby, meeting room and cafeteria had by this time been under water for three days and would be for an indeterminate time to come.  The parking lot, before Katrina, was the convenient welcoming area for the vehicles of family and friends who might visit, and for medical or emergency vehicles when needed.  Now it too was cut off by the same darkening liquid that would seem to grow darker and thicker during the night.

Spirits buoyed by the arrival of boats this morning were now being replaced by tentative patience.  These old souls, now stranded for three days feared that no-one would ever return if the opportunity today was missed.

Encouraged by information that Ronny had befriended a group of volunteers with fire-rescue and EMT experience as well as equipment, I assured the residents that they could expect a level of safety in their removal tomorrow that we could not have provided them today.

Moving into the sunlight out of the bowels of the last dark stairway, I thought for a moment that we had could make one or two more loads.  Just as fleetingly, my  mind flashed to images of the wet stairs, the heavy wheelchairs, the impaired residents and the turmoil at the roadside throughout the day.  I accepted that we had done all that we could that day, and that those left in their familiar surroundings above would be in the best place until reinforcements arrived in the morning.  Maybe by then, the area-wide strategic operation might be organized enough to actually do something with these less fortunate ones who needed care for their impairments.

My 50-year old body, pushed to its limits, did not feel pain or fatigue, presumably thanks to my adrenaline-diluted blood.  Little in my usually mundane daily schedule could compare with my experiences of the last day and a half.  It seemed like weeks since this had started.  The isolation and poor conditions were unlike anything I had encountered before.  The amount of physical effort and mental stress had been at levels ten or a hundred fold what I normally dealt with.  At the same time, this experience was awakening senses long unused and was in many ways invigorating. 

We floated slowly and carefully, retracing our flooded path back to the roadside dock.  The waters and the day itself seemed refreshingly serene as the late afternoon sky turned orange and reflected off of the waters around us.  Though it seemed like the end of the day was approaching, I knew nothing of the adventures we would face in its remaining few hours.

To be continued