This Saturday night after midnight (Sunday morning, April 26th) we'll be joined by the great harmonica player, Benny Maygarden. We'll also talk to Benny about his song; "Gutted" and his amazing story of his family and friends escape from New Orleans after Katrina.
This dramatic story as penned by Benny and his wife Mary Beth:
(Note, Benny and Mary Beth removed names in this version.)
THE STORY OF OUR ESCAPE
Ben and Mary Beth Maygarden
September 8, 2005
Having foolishly decided to stay for the impending hurricane Katrina, Mary Beth and I thought ourselves relatively well-supplied. We had ample food for people and beasts, 18 gallons of purified drinking water, many more gallons of tap water in containers, about 18 gallons of gasoline for the generator, batteries, radios, hurricane lamps and candles, and a 12-gauge pump shotgun. The plan was to ride out the storm in our ca. 1917 house, fairly confident that it would not collapse, secure it as well as we could after the storm, and then leave the city until utilities could be repaired. I understood the design and features of the New Orleans Drainage system, having written the National Register Evaluation of the system for the Corps of Engineers, and I had faith in it. What I did not include in my calculations was a failure of one element in the system that would render the rest of it unusable.
Or neighbors on the east, C--- and J---, evacuated on Sunday morning when Katrina had become a Category 5 storm. On the west, H--- and M--- were staying in their house with H---’s elderly father, G---, who refused to leave New Orleans, and their teenage daughters Z--- and I---. Almost but not all of the other houses within our vision were empty, and a handful of nuns, whom we never saw, apparently waited it out in the St. Rita’s school rectory. [It turns out the nuns were not there, but had evacuated]
Katrina itself was a scary event. The tropical force winds arrived in the early evening on Sunday. We spent a restless night listening to the wind whipping the trees, waiting for the inevitable power outage. I was awakened several times during the night by wind noise, only to see the ceiling fan still spinning. Surprisingly, the electricity did not go out until 5:30 a.m. on Monday, August 29. Alas, Katrina arrived in full force that morning as a category 4 storm, hitting us with 100+ mph winds. We had two trees go down, both missing the house in what would be the first of several miracles. A few odd panes of glass were shattered by flying debris, and we lost just a couple of composition shingles from the main roof. Our window frames, however, admitted blown rain from a dozen points; every towel, rag, and bed sheet we owned was crammed into place to stanch the flow of water running from the window frames. Where our rear hip roof joined the gable of the house, our recently-repaired flashing proved inadequate, and ominous water stains appeared on the ceilings below the roof/wall joint. However, our rickety carport, which we fully expected to disintegrate or fly away, was unscathed but for a few lost shingles. Similarly, our cars were in the driveway so as not to be damaged by the expected collapse of the carport, and were undamaged. Broad Place and our yard never gathered any significant standing water during the storm, which it sometimes did in a normal subtropical springtime downpour.
Monday evening, the sun came out briefly, the better to illuminate the general wreckage and spotty demolition the storm had caused. Some houses, like ours, were virtually unscathed by the wind, while others had hundreds of ceramic roof tiles shattered or roofing peeled away like the top of a sardine can. Entire trees were down in many places, in yards, on neutral grounds. Board fences were knocked over. At the end of our block, the F---’s house had been struck by two of their old yews, one of which ripped off their electric service breaker box, leaving a nice-sized hole with a view of the living room of the downstairs unit, where R---, L---, and their three kids lived. We walked around the block and closed some blown-open windows. Next door, we nailed a sheet of plywood over one of J--- and C---’s plate glass windows.
Mary Beth and I went to sleep relatively early Monday night, a little bit giddy from our good fortune with the house, but physically tired from fighting leaks all day and from the tension of the storm. We still had running water and gas, and we put the refrigerator on the generator. When we woke up on Tuesday, it was clear and promised to be hot. We had not been awake long when we noticed cars driving down Broad Place towards Walmsley and Carrollton, but then returning a few minutes later in the opposite direction. Then we noticed, at the extremities of our view from the house, that the surrounding streets were already filled with significant standing water. Broad Place was dry as a bone. We did not clearly understand until some time later what had happened, the now infamous rupture in the 17th Street Canal levee, which allowed most of uptown to flood. The news coverage, 87.7 on every wavelength of the FM band and only WWL on the TV, provided absolutely no useful information. In any event, it was already too late to escape in anything less than a very high vehicle. I had not gassed up my unreliable Crown Vic, and Mary Beth’s Honda Civic was too low to drive out. M---, H---, and the kids rapidly packed bags, W--- the chihuahua, and S--- the parakeet, jumped in Z---’s little Scion, and left. I was shocked that they left G--- behind—he obstinately refused to leave. I wondered what I was going to do with an old man next door if the situation got critical.
In 15 minutes the Scion was back, unable to negotiate the water on Claiborne Avenue. We were all stuck. Our two cars and the Scion went up on to the neutral ground in front of our house. We had one visitor in the morning, a man named M--- whose house on Palm Street was submerged; he had waded out and ridden a bike through water to get to his daughter’s house near us. He soon came back and parked her car near ours on the neutral ground. All afternoon the water rose. We picked up what furniture we could on the first floor, moved the generator to the porch before the water rose in the driveway, and then moved it to the second floor balcony. We prepared to unplug the refrigerator at the first indication of water in the house. We heard the only looting in our vicinity, some loudmouthed young men who entered one of the duplexes facing Broadway, coming out with a Playstation 2. We could hear them clearly because it was otherwise so quiet when the generator was off. M--- and I slapped a thin piece of plywood over the hole in the F---’s house, not enough to keep any determined person from getting in, but it was something at least. By Tuesday night, the water had risen in the yard to about 20 or 18 inches below the first floor of our house, and had a similar distance to go to get into the cars on the neutral ground. The toilets and taps stopped working, but we had filled even more containers with tap water before it gave out.
Tuesday had been busy, but Wednesday crept by, fiercely hot. We spent the morning on the balcony until the sun came around front, then we sweltered on the porch, where there was shade but no breeze. We swabbed ourselves with wet cloths and tried not to be active. We had tons of food but our appetites sagged and we forced ourselves to eat something to keep from getting weak, because we had really had no appetite since Monday night. The water had risen to about 12 inches below the first floor, and had entered the shed to a depth of two inches. Mary Beth noticed that the water had crept into the a/c heating ductwork beneath the house, visible in the vents in the floor. All day we gazed unbelievingly at the vast sheet of brown water, a technicolor film of gasoline and oil on the surface. Sometimes the wind or tide seemed to make it creep down the street in one direction, later to move up the street in the opposite direction. We didn’t like to wade in the water, which probably killed, or will kill, all but the toughest of the plants we had planted in our yard. [Surprisingly, much plant life survived] The non-migratory birds of the area flitted about, hungry, mobbing M---’s front-yard bird feeder when she re-filled it. The cars on the neutral ground remained dry, the water barely up to the bottom edge of the wheel covers. We didn’t know it then, but variation in the depth [ i.e., the rise] of water had virtually ceased.
We began to understand our predicament in more of its dimensions. The radio and TV told us of rooftop rescues, and we saw helicopters, but all we needed was a tall truck or a boat to get us out. Our only communication with the outside world was through cell phone calls that Mary Beth’s phone received, and text messaging. We heard loud buzzing in the direction of Carrollton Avenue, which was (supposedly) airboats taking out evacuees. Ever the admiral’s daughter, Mary Beth hung the American flag upside down to signal distress and expended energy waving it at passing helicopters, which mostly seemed to be headed in the direction of Memorial hospital or downtown to the Dome. The girls next door made a big sign that said “SEVEN HERE” and hung it from their roof. Our dogs could not be persuaded to relieve themselves on the balcony or porch, and Belle and Hubig chose the inside of the house instead. A few people passed back and forth in canoes or flat boats; we saw one black man with a small aluminum boat and a board for a paddle pass by several times, ferrying people from submerged Gert Town to somewhere, we weren’t sure where. We later discovered he was dropping them at Lafayette School on Carrollton Avenue. I doubt anybody paid him anything. No officials or representatives of law and order appeared, but on the other hand, we didn‘t see any threatening characters either. It was sinking in that thousands of more desperate people would be rescued before we would, and at the rate apparent from the infuriatingly inane TV and radio coverage, that could take weeks. Late Wednesday night a large motor boat came cruising down Broad Place with a news camera crew and a bimbo “correspondent” preening in the bow, looking all the world like they were filming a commercial on the Grand Canal in Venice. We were infuriated. They could easily have evacuated eight people at a go in that boat. I turned off the generator and yelled in my loudest voice, “HEY! Why the hell don’t you use that boat to rescue somebody!” It was all I could do to prevent myself from giving them a full blast of my best street obscenities. They ignored me.
Wednesday night I couldn’t sleep, not only from the heat, lack of air movement, and constant helicopters sweeping the streets with spotlights (I suppose in an ineffectual attempt to ward off looting) [ or make rescues?], but from the knowledge that no rescue from the outside would occur. The evening TV and radio news was becoming more alarmist about the collapse of law and order. I began to worry about what people without food or water for several days would be capable of doing, and our generator indicated loudly to all the neighborhood that we were better-prepared than some, and likely had supplies. We did in fact have quantities of food and water and could have lasted well over a week more without relief, if we had to. But it wasn’t our supplies that were so worrying. Without any way to wash ourselves, cookware, or anything else properly, and flies and mosquitoes proliferating, I was afraid that we would get a “bug” sooner or later, and then become weakened with diarrhea or worse.
I resolved during Wednesday night that we would have to take it upon ourselves to get out as soon as possible, a resolve that to my eternal regret I did not make before the storm or the night after it. In the sweltering dark, I developed a plan. The TV had shown River Road clear all the way out, which I knew logically should be the case from the natural topography. I also knew that Carrollton Avenue rose in elevation toward the River, and if we could walk down the neutral ground, we would eventually walk out of the flood. Once in Riverbend (my old neighborhood), we could stop at my friend M---‘s house, on the batture between the levee and the River, just over the Orleans-Jefferson line. Even if he was not there, we could rest, rinse off in the river, and so forth, before proceeding up River Road. I assumed River Road, as one of the few dry routes into the city, would have law enforcement and relief traffic. Ochsner Hospital, we knew, was operating, and I thought we could perhaps get a ride out from there on a truck or bus. The walking distance was something we could easily manage in two days, and thus we would have to carry only limited amounts of water for ourselves.
The pets were a dilemma and a problem. We simply would not be able to bring ourselves to leave them all behind. Steve the mastiff was strong and could swim and walk; Hubig the dachshund could walk on dry ground but could not swim through waters above our waist for blocks and blocks; the cats could neither swim nor walk, and neither could 14-year old Belle, the arthritic Labrador. Belle, I decided, would not make the trip. It made me feel sick-- I couldn’t leave her to die in the house, and the shotgun was the only solution that occurred to me at that point. I pondered over how to float a cat carrier, a dachshund, and some bottles of water to the foot of Carrollton Avenue. From “The Swiss Family Robinson” I remembered the improvised craft they built from barrel halves, and that was the germ of the idea for a floating craft I could construct from scrap wood and other materials I had on hand. “It only has to float a short distance,” I said to myself. My golf bag cart was light enough to float down Carrollton in the “boat,” and then the cat carrier and bottles of water could be placed on the golf cart for the rest of the trip. I also remembered M--- had a garden cart, which I intended to utilize, if it was better than the golf cart.
I woke Mary Beth up at dawn on Thursday and told her of my plan, with which she agreed. The water was down slightly, revealing the grass on the neutral ground in front of the house. Neither our house nor cars ever took on water. I went over to H--- and M---’s where M--- and the kids were still on the front porch, where they had slept the night in the stifling heat. I quietly told M--- that we were walking out as soon as possible, and asked if she wanted us to take the girls, or come with us too. I didn’t want to give them the option of leaving G--- again. I also said I intended to euthanize Belle and asked if she had enough ammunition for her small pistol for me to use one cartridge. She said she would discuss the whole thing with H---. I went to work on my craft, christened the “S.S. Admiral Weed” even before it was built. It consisted of a narrow frame of cypress planks left over from the reconstruction of my porch, the lightest large pieces of lumber I had. The exterior of this frame was wrapped in a quadruple layer of plastic sheeting, and inside would be nailed three laundry baskets. When weighted with bottles of water and loaded, the baskets would hopefully provide enough ballast to keep the contraption upright. One or both of us would undoubtedly have to stabilize it. I began a sweaty and rapid construction effort. The black “boat man” we had watched passed by again and reported St. Charles and Carrollton to be dry, and said busses were picking up people there (the second part of this was erroneous and must have been hearsay). Mary Beth remembered that she had some left-over sleeping tablets, and euthanization plans for Belle changed from guns to sausage packed with Lunesta, and a gentle bleeding. I still felt sick. We had advanced our departure time from the following dawn to as soon as possible, but M--- asked for us to wait until the next day, as they were going to make a last-ditch effort to get G--- out to the Notre Dame Seminary, where they hoped he would eventually be evacuated. How they were going to transport him, since he could not walk any distance (let alone wade through waters up to his waist) was going to be difficult to solve. H--- and the girls went on a reconnaissance to examine conditions between Broad Place and the Seminary.
H--- and the girls were gone for a long time, my boat was virtually finished, and we were becoming worried about what had happened to them. Steve, desperate, swam to H--- and M---’s front steps and doused a large potted plant for what seemed like ten minutes. I then swam him out to the neutral ground, where he relieved himself further. Suddenly, H--- and the girls came driving up Broad Place in a stretch passenger van, water well up the front grill. If they had landed on Broad Place in a plasma-powered flying saucer we would not have been more surprised, as we had not seen a vehicle since Tuesday afternoon. On their reconnaissance, the girls had noticed a large Ryder truck parked outside the Chateau Notre Dame old folks’ home, located behind the Archdiocese schools admin building on Walmsley Avenue and the Notre Dame Seminary on Carrollton Avenue. They rang the doorbell to Chateau Notre Dame and the door was answered by E---, the chief of maintenance of the Chateau. E---, his assistant L--- and another worker were loading computers and other equipment out of the already-evacuated home. They were leaving the city that afternoon, he informed H--- and the girls, and some people were riding too. They could come, grandfather, dog, bird, and all. They gave H--- the passenger van from the Chateau to retrieve G---, M---, et al., and miraculously (yet another miracle) H--- had gotten the van to run where SUVs and four-wheel drive trucks had not dared to go. The girls skipped out of the van in excitement to gather their stuff. We asked if we could go too, and H--- advised that we just show up with them back at the Chateau.
We paused long enough in our feverish “packing” (it can hardly be called that) to photograph the S.S. Admiral Weed, unlaunched on the front porch. It probably would have sunk anyway! In a matter of minutes we had loaded ourselves, one bag, all three dogs (Belle is lying at my feet as I type this), and two unhappy cats in one carrier onto the van with H--- et al., and their stuff. As Belle (the last to leave the porch) was arthritically swimming out to the van, I tripped on a submerged branch, fell down, and savaged my knee, my only wound so far in the whole ordeal. I worried immediately about sewage and God knows what else in the water, but so what. The ride in the van from Broad Place to Chateau Notre Dame was tense. The van stalled several times and was taking on water inside, but restarted, and when we pulled up next to the Ryder Truck, one incredible leg of the journey was over.
I looked E--- in the face-- a calm, stubbly face-- and asked him if he could take us and the pets. He did not hesitate: “Sure, there’s room.” E--- and his crew of two had been working for several days straight to evacuate the residents of the home, and were now engaged in the further exhausting work of removing computers from offices, and some other equipment and medical supplies for use at other locations. Up and down the stairs they went, carrying box after box and load after load. Theirs was an uncomplaining, tough heroism that I will never forget. E---’s house in Metairie was fine, but without power, and he was taking his wife, daughter, and dog out of the city. L---’s house in St. Bernard, and his collection of prize show cars, was completely inundated. They worked on, even with an occasional sense of humor to relieve the tension of the work. It was incredible and somewhat awe-inspiring. E--- told us to go inside and rest, and help ourselves to the food, drink, facilities, and first aid supplies! The Chateau generator was overheating, but there was still a modicum of air-conditioning. Boy, that felt good after three and one-half days of no a/c in heat indices of 105 degrees. I took the dogs up to the fourth floor, where we waited in a carpeted foyer for awhile. I laid down and took a short nap, probably only minutes, but it was very refreshing. Mary Beth had gone off to try to telephone family. When she returned, she informed me that there was some discussion about waiting to leave until the next day, to see if the water would recede any more. We were dead set against waiting any further because we felt that the water levels were not going to drop appreciably, or could even get temporarily worse.
I went downstairs, and the loading was nearer to completion but not yet done. I tried to be helpful. T---, the chief engineer of the Seminary, and E--- were debating a route out of the city. I joined the discussion. Ochsner Hospital had suggested the same Carrollton-River Road route I had planned on using to walk out. The question was how to get onto Carrollton Avenue from the Chateau, and whether the lowest part of the route, on Carrollton Avenue from Fontainebleau Drive to a few blocks toward the River from Claiborne, could be avoided. They decided on a reconnaissance before loading the passengers, and I said they should check Broad Place, because we were dry longer than anywhere else in the area. Also, I said I could grab the shotgun, which I had forgotten in the excitement of leaving in the van. One of the ancillary Seminary buildings had already been taken over by neighborhood people out of Gert Town and Hollygrove, and Lafayette School similarly had no representatives of official authority. They were lawless and full of desperate people. L---, a tall and beefy man who might have played football, said he had already had to “crack a guy from the school on the head” as he tried to “infiltrate” the Chateau. E--- and L--- were pretty sure that the Chateau would be forced open and ransacked for pharmaceuticals as soon as the truck left. We were afraid, understandably so in the circumstances, that ruffians might try to highjack the truck, if someone realized it was tall enough to get them out of the water. “Get the shotgun,” they said.
E---, T---, L---, and I got in the Ryder truck to reconnoiter. We drove to Broad Place, where we found a group of college-age kids, friends of T---’s son, in a boat trying to rescue H--- et al., because they had left the “Seven Here” sign visible. I felt proud of those college kids. I grabbed the shotgun and shells, and didn’t look back. At Fontainebleau, we decided no route we could see from Broad Place would work, from the depths of the swamped cars. We went back out Walmsley to Carrollton, past Lafayette School, where numerous boats were moored to the front steps, and down Carrollton. The truck labored in the water, its muffler and exhaust pipe thoroughly submerged, the grill pushing a wake like a barge. At the gate of Fontainebleau Drive on Carrollton, a car was submerged nearly to its roof. Nerve-wracking, but we got by with two wheels on the neutral ground. The intersection of Claiborne and Carrollton was an amazing sight-- right in the center of the intersection a man perched atop his submerged car, two bottles of Gatorade seemingly his only provisions. He could have waded out, but to where? On Claiborne in front of the Chase Bank was an abandoned ambulance, water up to its hood, its doors hanging open, certainly looted on the chance it held any drugs. I was beginning to doubt that we could cross the gulf of Claiborne Avenue. But with engine revving, we made it! Across the lowest portions of the street grade, we emerged on the river side of Claiborne, and tried the neutral ground of Carrollton, running on the streetcar tracks. We nearly bogged down, but backed up and got traction. Stopping our forward reconnaissance, we turned 180 degrees, and headed back to the Chateau. “We can do this!” E--- said. I was not sure at all.
We got back to the Chateau, people tensely waiting outside on a balcony to see our return and hear if we could make it. “Let’s go!” E--- said decisively, and the last packing began. A few minutes later he pulled me aside. “What do you think?” he asked. I hesitated. “You know the capabilities of the truck,” I answered. “If you think we can do it, we can do it.” But I don’t think I believed it.
The final packing of persons, cargo, and animals took some time longer. I offered L--- the shotgun, and he said, “No, I’ll be in the back. You take it up front.” L--- was to be the security at the rear door, armed with a crowbar, and as it turned out, Steve the mastiff. They made a pretty impressive team that would give even a desperate crackhead pause. A rain had started to fall and we wanted to get going before it got any heavier. Minutes seemed to pass like hours. More people were added to the passenger list, including Monsignor M---, the no. 2 bishop in the Archdiocese of New Orleans; a priest and nun from the Seminary, some employees of the Seminary and Chateau and their families, and a few people of whose origin we were unaware, including a developmentally disabled woman. The grand total of passengers when the loading was complete was 19 persons, seven dogs, eight cats, one bird, and a tub containing 16 turtles! It was E---’s Ark, pretty well packed with cargo and people. E---, with all of his responsibilities and inevitable exhaustion, was amazingly thoughtful. He stopped me in the hall and told me to find some pillows for G---, to cushion his ride, because he was worried about G---’s frailty.
L--- had the good idea of attaching a flexible coiled hose, scavenged from a clothes dryer, to the exhaust pipe to act as a snorkle and get it above the water level. I stooped in the water under the truck and attached it. When we were finally all loaded, I was in the front seat with the shotgun. Bishop M--- and E---’s teenage daughter were wedged between me and E---. Mary Beth was in back handling Steve and Belle, with Hubig on her lap. The cats were in their carrier, stowed with all of the other cats close to the front of the truck. It was decided that the passengers in the back would ride with the door open for fresh air. Blessedly, the weather was overcast and rainy, which kept the temperature down. E--- handed the keys of the Chateau to T---, who was removing some supplies for the Seminary, where a handful of priests and students remained. We checked the walkie-talkie communication between the cab and the back. I asked Monsignor M--- to give us a special prayer asking the Lord’s blessing on our journey, and he spoke simply and reverently. E--- revved the engine, and we headed out. It was 2:00 PM.
The water was soon well up the front grill of the truck, creating a mighty wake, so E--- slacked up on the forward speed, but kept the RPMs high. “The snorkel is helping,” he said, “the engine’s got more power.” Meanwhile, L--- in the back kept asking, “Why are we slowing down? Speed up!” We pulled out past Lafayette School, which had fewer boats in front of it. A few sad denizens of Carrollton, pushing floating trash cans or tubs in front of them, containing who knows what, were all the people we saw outside of Lafayette. We passed the submerged car at Fontainebleau, and pushed on to Claiborne. The man atop his car was still there. I saw the last familiar face I would see in New Orleans; a mentally-ill homeless man of our neighborhood stood in the midst of the intersection of Carrollton and Claiborne, in the hooded jumpsuit he wore winter and summer, water above his waist, standing next to a floating garbage can and staring off into space. R--- C--- (from St. Andrew’s Church) and I had brought the man Christmas dinner last year, bringing it to the bus stop where he was snoozing in the winter cold.
There was no point hesitating; we nosed out into the intersection, the water probably at its deepest. Although the truck sputtered awfully, it did not stall. There was much deep water yet to get through as we bumped onto the neutral ground and streetcar track of Carrollton on the river side of Claiborne Avenue, needing the extra half a foot of elevation provided by the neutral ground. E--- was constantly asking me where the cross streets and curbs were, anxious not to pop a tire. That would cook us. The ride was rough and we were concerned about the people in the back getting injured. The back of the truck bounced around wildly as we jumped curbs. Mary Beth kept sliding off of her perch on an ice chest, with Hubig digging his claws into her legs. The passengers were quiet, peering out the open back of the truck, with occasional yelps as we hit large bumps and careened to the side. As we rode along with two wheels in the alignment of the streetcar tracks, we lost traction. E--- rocked us back and forth gently, but as we pulled forward, the right rear wheel hung up on the streetcar rail and slid forward; we began to slip sideways. We were stuck. Our hearts sunk to our bowels. We were a long way from the Chateau, with its food and water and still-running generators, the truck packed with people of all ages and conditions-- and all those animals! E--- rocked us again. Traction! The truck pulled forward, more confidently. We were out of that trap!
E--- abandoned the neutral ground as too risky and put us in the street, in what had been the lake-bound lane. The water was still deep, and as we advanced, a large fallen live oak bough blocked our progress. We couldn’t drive over it; it had to be pulled out of the way. On the walkie-talkie, E--- called for strong men to help as I jumped into the water from the cab; L-- was the only one to answer the call. I grabbed a branch of the bough and pulled with all my weight; the branch broke, and I fell backward, over my head. L--- came around the truck to see my baseball cap floating on the filmy water. I shot up, scraping my wounded knee on the blacktop in my hurry to extricate myself from the swill. We both put our weight into pulling the bough, which gave, and we towed it out of the way. As we were engaged in this, an elderly couple appeared on their front steps. E--- called to them to come with us and that we would walk them out to the truck. With one voice, they refused and waved us away. We didn’t argue and went on.
As we progressed, I sensed the level of the water dropping-- we were coming out. I yelled to E--- “We’ve got it! We’ve got it!” We reached Oak Street, which Ochsner had said was dry to River Road, but I was doubtful and we opted to be sure by continuing to Leake Avenue. We passed the Rite-Aid where looters had used a warehouse fork lift truck to force the front roller door, and then St. Andrew’s School, Church, and Chalstrom Parish House, a bittersweet sight for Mary Beth and me. They appeared in fair shape, but we were still tense and couldn’t study them. Past Zimpel Street the road became drier and drier, with evidence of vehicle traffic since the storm had rained branches and leaves everywhere. A very few people were wandering around in Riverbend, some indigent and homeless, a few walking this way and that with shapeless plastic bags, a couple of men who looked like they had articles they hadn’t purchased. No one seemed interested in us at all, let alone threatening. I felt guilty that we were getting out.
We turned on to River Road, and in moments were out of Orleans Parish. Our total time from the door of Chateau Notre Dame had probably been fifteen or twenty minutes. On River Road, I was shocked-- there were no vehicles at all, no police, National Guard, or relief columns pouring into the city on one of its few clear entry routes. It was Thursday afternoon; the storm was Monday; I couldn’t understand it. There was nobody, not even people leaving. We knew there were many thousands trapped in the city, elderly, poor, suffering terribly, and even a few well-supplied idiots like us who didn’t leave when we should have. How could there be so little response?
The first organized activity we saw were Entergy trucks working on power lines in the vicinity of Ochsner Hospital. We flagged down a supervisor’s truck to confirm that Clearview Parkway (unusually) had not flooded. I ran around to the back of our truck, expecting a surly bruised mob. Instead they asked why we had stopped. I led a quick three cheers for E---, pulled off the tattered remains of the snorkle, which had strung out for about 50 feet behind us, and we were back on the road. I told Monsignor M--- that E--- was going to get a big fat Christmas present from me and should be promoted to chauffeur for the Pope. On Clearview we saw our first officials-- Jefferson Sheriff’s deputies guarding the Wal-mart and shops in Elmwood. Yes, they were well guarded.
The rest of the trip was a slow decompression, but E--- worried about the seminarians still in New Orleans, and was plotting how he could go back into the city that night to get them out! An incredible man. At Gonzales we stopped and everyone got out of the truck. We saw another glimpse of E---’s deep compassion when he helped G--- descend on the hydraulic lift. E--- placed one arm around G---’s waist, and covered G---’s hand with his own. It was such a simple act of gentleness, and we were blessed to have witnessed such profound humanity. Meanwhile, the dogs did business on dry green grass, we ate junk food, tried to make phone calls, and savored our good fortune. The Monsignor heard by phone that the seminarians had gotten out suddenly in a boat, alleviating E---’s further efforts. Back in the truck cab, we were zombies, almost silent.
At 5:00 PM we rolled into the parking lot of St. George’s Church in Baton Rouge. We were greeted by a TV news crew covering our arrival, Parish members rushed to see if they could help us, and I felt even guiltier about getting out. But out we were, and I shook E---’s and L---’ hands firmly and told them how grateful I was that they had saved my family. I hope they believed I was grateful, because I don’t think I’ve ever been so consciously grateful in my life. I also told Monsignor M--- that he had some incredible people working for him. Shortly, my daughter Bonnie got through the ever-worsening Baton Rouge traffic jam and succeeded in finding the Church. She burst into tears as she jumped out of her car, and we had a long tearful hug. The first thing I told her was that her father was a fool for having stayed in New Orleans during a hurricane, when she had begged us to leave. When it was time to leave St. George‘s parking lot, Mary Beth sought out E--- and L--- for a final, tear-filled thank you, to which they both simply replied, “Glad we could help.”
There truly are angels among us. Thanks be to God.