As we drive down Highway 61 into New Orleans, we immediately notice the bulk of the traffic is headed west—out of the city. About 20 miles west of the city, we see the first signs of storm damage. Signs are blown over, some power lines down. Many of the gas stations have caution tape around them or signs that read, “No Gas.” The stations that have not run out of gas have long lines of cars—people desperate for a staple most of us take for granted. I think I’ll never again complain about the high price of gas—at least I am able to get it. Cars and trucks on the road are packed with people’s lives… the things they could salvage from the storm. We pass one couple—their car loaded down with belongings—the woman in the passenger’s seat is talking on a cell phone—tears streaming down her face. We assume that what is in her car is all she has left.
Our mission as we drive closer to New Orleans is to find our local airboat rescuers. We pass several police checkpoints on the outskirts of the city, but we are never stopped. I call David Beeson, an airboat rescuer from Denison and learn he is still out on the water. There is an elderly woman still in her home who has refused to come out for more than a week. But David has received word she is ready to be rescued. It is after 6 PM and even though he has been out since 7 AM, he agrees to pick her up. He passes the phone to a local who gives us directions to the Rescue Boat staging area. We’re only about 10 miles away, but to get there, we have to get on the Causeway. We learn from the radio that everything east of the causeway is still under water. As we cross over I-10, we see the flooding for ourselves. Cars are submerged and I immediately notice a McDonald’s sign high in the air. The restaurant below is 50% under water. Our first view of the devastation is hard to take in. Imagine the main street of your town looking more like a river than a road. All signs of life are gone and it’s hard to believe we are looking at a major U.S. city.
We head west on I-10 and we are stunned to find we are the ONLY car on the interstate. A major U.S. interstate—completely empty.
At the staging area for the rescue boat pilots, we see a massive relief effort. The parking lot of a suburban shopping center in Jefferson Parish is filled with boats, Wildlife Rescue vehicles, large fuel tanks, and personnel.
David Beeson and Harold Speed return from their fourth day of rescues just after dark. They look exhausted. The first question to Matt throws us both off guard. They ask him if he brought his pistol! David goes on to explain that it is basically “every man for himself.” We learn all of the rescuers carry guns because they’ve heard people have been shooting at the rescue boats. They also wear bullet-proof vests.
We have truly entered another world. New Orleans looks like a war-ravaged city. After dark, the only vehicles on the road either have flashing lights and sirens, or they are covered in camouflage.
Their mission begins before dawn. After only a few hours sleep, it’s back out on the water. We follow a convoy of airboats to the staging area where we met them last night. As the sun comes up, we quickly realize this day will be different than any other so far. Police have set up a checkpoint along the road we need to take to get to the staging area. Airboat Captain Harold Speed stops and gets out to talk to the police. There are some tense moments and it looks to us like the police will not let us pass, but several minutes later, Harold pulls out the necessary paperwork and we are allowed through.
At the staging area, we are amazed by the red tape the rescuers have to go through each morning just to get their boats into the water. Every boat must have a New Orleans police officer on board—one part protector, the other part navigator. Two EMT’s are also required. They are all armed and they are all wearing vests. When all of the necessary personnel arrive, we finally set out for the water—three hours after we arrive at the command post.
We wind our way along River Road—right along the Mississippi. The farther east we drive, the more storm damage we see. But the devastation isn’t apparent until we arrive in Orleans Parish—this is the place where we can no longer drive our vehicle—and we hop in Harold Speed’s airboat. We see homes under water. Cars are floating. The tops of the street signs are the only sign this was ever a street at all.
The smell here is overwhelming and looking in the water, we see why. It is hard to wrap my mind around what it in that water. My eyes were spared the true horror of the devastation. We never saw any “floaters,” as the rescuers call them. Dead bodies. But there is no doubt they are here.
Baptist Memorial hospital has water over the first floor. I see a Wendy’s restaurant under at least six feet of water. There are still cars in the drive-thru lane and one is even under the drive-thru window. I wonder how fast the water must have risen here when the levee broke. I wonder if the people in that car were able to get out fast enough.
Harold Speed explains to us the frustration of their mission now. In the first couple of days, people were fighting to get on their boats—Harold rescued 200 people the first day. But now, of those who are still left alive, many do not want to leave. Some are afraid to abandon what they have left. Police say others stay behind to loot their neighbors homes.
Just a few minutes after we got on the water, we see a woman sitting on her porch and Officer Glen Martins asks if she is ready to leave. She says she’s OK. He tells her she’ll die if she stays there. She says she understands, but still doesn’t want to go. He tells her, “Rest in Peace,” and the boat speeds away.
Minutes down the road, we see two men sitting on the second-story porch of a derelict apartment complex. The first floor is under water. Again, Officer Martins asks if they are ready to leave. They say they’re fine and are waiting for their apartment manager to come with a boat. Soon we discover there are three other men sleeping inside. They put up a lot of resistance until Officer Martin climbs over the railing and tells them they have to leave. Each man is lowered into the boat with a bed sheet.
On our way back to dry land, I see these men had no idea what had become of their neighborhood. The looks on their faces are shock and disbelief. Inside that apartment, with no communication, no television, and no radio, they believed the flood waters would recede in a few days, as they always had before. Now they see they had no idea the extent of the damage. I ask one what he is thinking and he replies simply, “Sad. Just sad.”
The rescued men are quickly unloaded into the hands of waiting law enforcement and the boat heads back out. They hope this was only their first of many rescues today.