NEW ORLEANS – They shivered on rooftops bashed by flood waves, cowered in attics they feared would become coffins, made boats of flotsam and paddles of jetsam, and salvaged floating bags of Lay’s potato chips and Huggies diapers.
For many hundreds if not thousands in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina wrought unimaginable devastation Monday but left them with a meager, tantalizing and almost infuriating consolation: It could have been much, much worse.
Many were rescued Monday. Many probably weren’t.
The monster storm veered east just enough to spare the entire city from floods 20 feet high.
Instead, places such as the predominantly poor and black Seventh, Eighth and Ninth wards near downtown bore the brunt. Streets in these neighborhoods are now swamps of garbage, rather than mere canals. Though sewer lines aren’t damaged, the water is foul nonetheless as a number of human bodies – officials were unsure of the count – floated as well.
“All I know is the lightning wouldn’t stop. It was everywhere, and the water kept coming. I never thought it would be like this,” said Maria Morris, 29, rescued by firefighters four hours after the storm in an attic with her husband, Leslie Williams, 55, and three others.
For Williams, the lightning didn’t impress him as much as the total force of waves and wind that became indistinguishable at a certain point.
“We were so weak. We couldn’t do a thing,” said Williams, a city building inspector. “And I don’t know what we’ll do now.”
The two were hauled to dry land with nine others. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said earlier that 200 people called 911 during the storm to say they were stranded atop roofs – but those were the few lucky enough to have land-line and cellular telephone service at the right time.
Many had to wait hours for rescue.
Those who weren’t picked up by nightfall faced a moonless night unlit by streetlamps, plagued with fear and the possibility of water moccasins, swimming rats and cockroaches.
Even by day, rescue workers proceeded slowly. There are no channel markers and charts. Some street signs and fences rested just beneath the surface. Downed power lines and trees threatened to foul propellers and knock rescuers into the mucky water.
“There are thousands out there. On Franklin Avenue alone, there are hundreds. I was on Franklin – or over it – and all I know is water,” said Louisiana National Guard Corporal John Jarreau said. “A lot of people had nowhere to go. So they stayed. And we have to get them out.”
Another guardsman, Capt. Jarvis Perry, saw the Nash family – four children, a mom and grandma – stuck on their front porch, waist deep in water and crying. He and a friend found a boat and scooped them up. The family was briefly separated as firefighters ferried the family to different spots, outraging mother Joyce Nash, 33.
“We took the storm. We took the floods. And they separate us. It isn’t right,” she said.
It will take weeks for the city to pump out all the water. Then will come the house-to-house search for the dead. And then the cleanup. And then the rebuilding. The devastation threatens to make New Orleans, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden of U.S. cities, even poorer and more crime-ridden.
New Orleans had just completed an ambitious $4 billion downtown rebuilding project – shattered like so many glass shards now littering the district’s streets – and was trying to clean up slums and help the poor buy their own homes.
“We were doing so well, and now this happens,” Nagin said, shaking his head. He said he hoped his city would rebound the way Miami did after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Sonjid Cook isn’t so sure. The 35-year-old registered nurse, his wife and two little kids drove back and forth Monday on Interstate 10 in their Honda Element. The car, designed for heavy waters, is the only thing they now own.
“That’s my house,” Cook said, pointing to a gable roof in the water reflecting a nectar sunset smeared with charcoal clouds. “Inside is my dog. His name is Ko. And he’s probably dead. If not, he’s almost dead. And he’ll be dead when we find him. This is a family that has lost everything except each other. I don’t know how we’ll get it back.”
At the least, he hoped for some diapers.
At a flooded Food Circle store, men waded chest deep to collect floating plastic plates, potato chips and whatever else.
“Yo! Get me some Huggies!” Cook yelled to them.
Another man swore back at him and a police officer snapped photos of them. They continued on, hiding their faces.
David Martinez, 32, can’t contemplate going back in the water. Laughing from delirium and the pleasure of rescue, Martinez stopped smiling when he remembered those he left behind. He said three children, their parents and a grandparent all clambered to the rooftop as the water rose and rose and rose.
“I went to find help, but I got stuck,” said Martinez, an oil-rig worker. He found a crate and some floating plywood scraps, poling and paddling along with a beat-up broom.
Clyde Endard, 44, and his wife had no such salvaging luck. And even if a broom and crate came his way, Endard probably wouldn’t have grabbed for them. He didn’t want to lose his King James Bible.
“The Lord. That’s what got me through. The Lord,” Endard said. “The 23rd Psalm. Read it.”