September 27, 2005 in Nation/World

Mom’s resourcefulness helped save family

Tu-Uyen Tran Knight Ridder

Health risks in New Orleans still unclear

» BATON ROUGE, La. – State environmental health officials are cautiously optimistic that New Orleans has avoided its two biggest environmental threats: sludge that’s so contaminated the city is uninhabitable, and Lake Pontchartrain turned into a toxic soup.

» But as the first steps of repopulating the city resumed Monday, tests showing whether there could be long-term health risks haven’t been completed yet.

» Preliminary testing shows that Pontchartrain and flood sediment in the city contain dangerous levels of bacteria. But these should diminish quickly as the city dries out and pumping into the lake stops.

» However, Hurricane Rita reflooded areas of the city and added a new layer of sludge, said Ivor van Heerden, director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes at Louisiana State University.

» The most immediate threat is bacteria. E. coli and other harmful bacteria exceed health standards by a factor of 10. As a result, health and rescue workers being sent into the city must be vaccinated for tetanus and other serious infectious diseases.

» Health officials recommend that everyone in the city wear a respirator mask. As the city dries out, dust will be a problem.

VERMILION PARISH, La. – Sheriff’s deputies figured that Heidi Marks and her three children were lost beneath the waves after Hurricane Rita ripped through the marshlands of southern Louisiana.

One day the house in tiny Mouton Cove was there; the next, only roiling whitecaps.

But Marks came out alive with her children, her mother-in-law and a tale of a last-ditch fight for survival.

As the water rose, Marks first panicked, then prayed. Then she set her mind: “I’m not going to stand here and let my kids drown. I’m not going to drown without fighting.”

The two women and Toby, 12, Dani, 8, and Kristin, not quite 2, escaped a house filled with chilly water up to Marks’ chin. They huddled on the roof, raked by howling winds. A friend plucked them from the roof Saturday.

The house was supposed to be a refuge, not a trap.

As Rita powered toward the Gulf Coast, Marks had taken her children from their home in Port Arthur, Texas, to Mouton Cove, where her mother-in-law was. Marks’ husband, Eric, was stuck on a tugboat at Lake Charles.

When deputies arrived to ask the family to evacuate from Mouton Cove, Marks said she wasn’t taking her children on the road again unless she knew she could find shelter.

At 2:30 a.m. Saturday, she changed her mind. The water had reached the porch of the house, which was sitting on blocks.

By then, authorities said, there was nothing they could do.

“This woman called during the height of the storm,” Maj. Darryl LeBlanc said. “We weren’t going to risk our personnel.”

Still the water rose.

Marks said she and her mother-in-law, Carol Tompkins, put the children on a bed. Then they had to pile another mattress on. When it started floating, they crammed stuff underneath in case it soaked too much and sank.

The water began rising more quickly. In an hour, it rose from Marks’ waist to just below her chin. And it was cold.

Toby was shaking, she said, and she could tell from her first-aid training in the Indiana National Guard that Tompkins was on the verge of hypothermia.

Staying inside was dangerous, but getting on the roof didn’t seem safe either. Rita was raging in the darkness, and they had no way to tie themselves to the roof.

Then Marks’ Guard training kicked in.

She had Toby and Tompkins pry the door open while she held her daughters. Outside, they found a tall metal locker that was too heavy to float and put the girls on top.

Daylight was breaking, and Marks could see an air-conditioner sticking out of the far end of the house. It was their best way to get on the roof.

She and Toby swam in the swift current and he clambered onto the roof. From there, he helped the others as Marks swam each of them over.

By the time everyone was on the roof, it was 7:30 a.m.

About an hour later, her sister-in-law’s boyfriend made it to the house in a flat-bottom boat. When it started taking on water, a stranger in a speedboat rescued them.

On Monday, Marks said, she was headed for Waco, Texas, where she has relatives.

“There are wonderful angels in the world today,” she said. “The world may seem cold and wrong, but there are angels out there.”

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