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Hundreds rescued with ‘missing’ boat

Presumed stolen after Hurricane Katrina, the 24-footer was found with a note written on the gunwale

Ken Bellau is a modern-day Indiana Jones.

At least that’s how Ward Howard describes his fellow New Orleanian. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, Bellau spent nearly two weeks helping the National Guard rescue more than 400 people — using Howard’s boat.

Howard first learned of Bellau Sept. 13, when Howard and friend Jeff Haynes returned home to the Crescent City. The men went to the garage where they had stored their new 24-foot Skeeter center console bay boat before the storm, but were surprised to find that the boat was missing.

“The garage was fine. The trailer was still there, but the boat was nowhere in sight,” says Howard, who is 56. “We thought, How in the world did that happen? We knew it didn’t just float away. We knew that it must have been taken.”

Haynes and Howard left the garage — which belongs to their friend Dr. Terry Habig, the third co-owner of the boat — and set off on a tour of uptown New Orleans. Minutes later, about two blocks from the garage, the men discovered their Skeeter abandoned on the side of the road.

“It was an odd sight. The boat was high and dry, just like a car parallel parked,” Howard recalls.

Written on the gunwale, the men found this message: “This boat rescued over 400 people — thank you.” Written next to the note was Ken Bellau’s name and telephone number.

“I couldn’t resist. I had to call the number and find out what happened,” Howard says. “It turns out Ken commandeered the boat and really did help rescue all those people.”

Ken Bellau, a 37-year-old home renovator and professional cyclist, was in French Guyana, South America, participating in the Tour of French Guyana bicycle race when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. Three days after the hurricane hit, Bellau boarded a plane for New Orleans. “I had a list of people that I knew needed help,” Bellau says. “I made it to my house, which fortunately wasn’t very damaged, jumped into a kayak and headed down the streets looking for people.”

His first day back, Bellau was wearing military fatigues and toting a 40 mm handgun when he encountered two men operating a 24-foot Skeeter. “At first they thought I was with the military. I was trying to look official,” Bellau says. “I got to talking with them, and they were out there doing the same thing I was: looking for people to help. But with the complete chaos and the uncooperative people they met, they were burnt out. I was just getting started, so they let me use the boat, which was more useful than trying to take on people in a little kayak, that’s for sure.”

It wasn’t long after Bellau took the helm of the Skeeter that patrolmen from the 2nd Battalion of the 185th Armor National Guard from San Diego stopped Bellau and told him that they were going to commandeer the boat. “But when they found out that I’m from the area and know it like the back of my hand, they saw me as an asset and wanted me to help,” Bellau says. “I guess they sort of commandeered me and the boat.”

Over the next two weeks, Bellau says he assisted the National Guardsmen in more than 90 water rescues. He says one of their biggest obstacles was navigating around submerged vehicles, downed electrical poles, parking meters and floating debris. He never had to change the prop, but the blades were only about two inches long by the end, he says. One by one, boats that had been commandeered for the rescue effort broke down. Every boat but the Skeeter.

“Each day I set out with 20 to 25 soldiers on four boats,” says Bellau. “At the end of each day, we’d wind up with only two boats. They’d either give out, become damaged, or would sink. That Skeeter was the only boat that ran continuously. The Yamaha F250 was quiet, which made it easier to hear people calling for help.

“Without the Skeeter, I’m not sure how things might have been,” Bellau adds. “She was like a good friend, like a beacon of light.”

Habig, Haynes and Howard had purchased the Skeeter in August, and were able to go on five fishing trips before the storm, logging only about 20 hours. It was heartbreaking for Haynes and Howard when they found the boat on the side of the road, by no means in the new condition they had left it. The boat had sustained serious damage at the bow and stern, was littered with peoples’ personal belongings — toys, water bottles, a tattered American flag — and was filthy and smelled terrible. But when the men learned that their boat played an important role in the rescue effort, their heartache turned to happiness. “We were thrilled to have found the boat, but especially happy to find out it was used for such a good purpose,” Haynes says.

“We were stunned, in a positive way,” says Howard. “I guess it was fate that we put the boat in that garage instead of leaving it in the water. For it to have been as useful and dependable as it was, we all think that’s great. The boat is banged up now, but she couldn’t have died a nobler death.”

And the Skeeter’s legacy might just live on. Howard has been in contact with the Louisiana State Museum and says he’d like to see it in one of its displays. “I hope the museum will have it,” he says. “I can’t think of a better place for it.”

Howard says that he, Habig and Haynes are looking forward to someday purchasing another boat together (insurance covered the loss). “We’re not sure yet about all the details, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we bought another Skeeter,” he says. “And this time, hopefully, we’ll own it long enough to give it a name. Maybe ‘Katrina 400.’ That’s fitting, I think.”