Hurricane Katrina: some of her victims tell their stories

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Katrina, a name that will go down in infamy, left more suffering and destruction in its wake than any hurricane in U.S. history. Rolling ashore near Grand Isle 60 miles south of New Orleans, the Aug. 29 fury ripped through the Mississippi Delta with 150-mph winds and a storm surge as high as 30 feet, and left a 150-mile swath of utter ruin on the Gulf Coast.

Katrina, a name that will go down in infamy, left more suffering and destruction in its wake than any hurricane in U.S. history. Rolling ashore near Grand Isle 60 miles south of New Orleans, the Aug. 29 fury ripped through the Mississippi Delta with 150-mph winds and a storm surge as high as 30 feet, and left a 150-mile swath of utter ruin on the Gulf Coast.

 

New Orleans, a jewel of the South, was swallowed up in Katrina’s flood waters, and in the aftermath those who had bet that the city’s much-vaunted levee system would protect it lost the gamble. Residents became hostages of the rising waters until an armada of boats and aircraft and a vast force of military, Coast Guard and civilian rescuers arrived to pluck them from porches and rooftops.

Much of the coast remains for now uninhabitable, and this triggered an exodus of truly Biblical proportions. Tens of thousands evacuated to other states to regroup, some waiting to see when they can come back, others starting new lives where they are.

Kimberly Chauvin of Terrabone Parish, La. — wife of a shrimper, mother of a shrimper, operator of a shrimp retail business — headed for Houston with their three children while her husband, David, sat out Katrina at the dock on their 73-foot shrimp boat, Mariah Jade. Chauvin had come back home after the storm and was helping staff an evacuation center at her church, providing hurricane victims with food, clothing and shelter, and helping them find jobs and enroll their children in schools.

“I think Katrina taught our industry — those with boats who thought they were safe on them — a new respect for hurricanes,” she says. “It has taught them to get out, tie it up. What’s going to happen is going to happen, no matter what.” That was a very hard lesson for many.

Out of all this suffering and loss and dislocation have emerged stories of survivors who are determined to rebuild, and workers and volunteers who have rallied to help. The idealism of a young Coast Guardsman who helped airlift survivors out of New Orleans. The commitment of a volunteer who led a caravan of trailer boats to the city to help save people. The doggedness of a shrimper who looks forward to a better day. The compassion of a couple who lost their yacht club and opened their home to two displaced families. The resilience of a tug captain who was back at work on the Mississippi River while his home was under 8 feet of water.

These are the faces of five survivors and overcomers, and these are their stories.

The tug captain

‘It was the safest place’

Capt. Rob Liebkemann rode out Hurricane Katrina on the tugboat Jane S.

The New Orleans tug captain hunkered down for seven hours in the steel-hulled 96-footer at Mile Marker 101 on the Mississippi River. The tug was heavily ballasted and tied with two others to two big deck barges at the docks of E.N. Bisso & Son Inc., one of the city’s oldest ship-towing firms, and owner and operator of the Jane S.

“We had a storm surge of 12 to 13 feet,” says Liebkemann, 40, though the wind is what he remembers most. Steady 100-plus-mph winds raked the river for three long hours, driving 4- to 6-foot seas into the tugs. Liebkemann says wind-driven rain scoured the hulls, turning their rich, glossy finish dull and flat as if they had been sandblasted. Pieces of tin and other debris blew by at lethal speeds.

Yet if you had to be in New Orleans on the morning

Katrina struck, the Jane S. was about as good a place as any. The tug came through unscathed. “It was the safest place,” he says. “It can float.” Crewmembers cranked up the tugs’ powerful engines when the wind reached 65 mph to steady the vessels in the wind and seas.

Scott Slatten, Bisso’s vice president of operations, thought he would sit out Katrina in dockside offices atop the levee, but when winds reached 45 mph he moved aboard the Jane S. “It’s a good thing I did because we lost part of the roof,” he says.

Liebkemann’s home lies three miles from the 17th Street levee, which burst and filled the city with flood waters. Slatten’s house, just a few blocks from his captain’s, was under 8 feet of water. Liebkemann suspected his own house fared little better. A week after the storm, he was living on the Jane S. with all the comforts of home: a generator, phones, stove and oven, plenty of food and water, and air conditioning. His wife, a veterinarian, had fled before the storm, driving to Houston and then to Atlanta, where she was staying with family and looking for work. Belle Chasse, the town where she had worked, is devastated.

As looting spread, Slatten and Liebkemann launched a motorized pirogue (an indigenous bayou boat) and navigated through flooded streets to Slatten’s house to pick up an arsenal of guns to protect themselves.

Two days after Katrina, Liebkemann — at the Coast Guard’s request — took the Jane S. downriver to Mile Marker 52 to survey the channel. The levee was littered with vessels sitting high and dry: a 50-car ferry, tugboats, a dry dock with an offshore tug still in the cradle, push boats and crew boats. At the TECO Bulk Terminal, a fleet of 125 coal barges had torn loose and scattered.

“I got on top of the wheelhouse and looked over the levee, and there were barges strung out on land behind the plant,” says Liebkemann. “They were pushed over the levy. … All along the east bank of the river as far as I could see, three miles, there were barges lying along the banks of the river. It was like a parking lot of cars, except they were barges.”

Yet, he says, the channel was navigable. Within a week the Coast Guard had reopened it to daytime transits for ships that draw up to 39 feet.

Liebkemann was towing ships again, one of the few city businesses back up and running. “We’ve got no home to go to,” he says. “We may as well make some money.”

The shrimper

‘next year is always

another year’

Shrimper Scott St. Pierre stocked up on ice before Katrina ripped through Bayou Lafourche — his home town and home port.

Expecting tough times ahead, St. Pierre stacked 50 300-pound ice blocks on board Mom and Dad, his

72-foot steel shrimp boat. “If you wait for the government to take care of you, you starve and go hungry,” St. Pierre, 41, says.

Tied up on the bayou in front of his home, the Mom and Dad was always in sight during Katrina, a last refuge for him and his family if the Gulf washed over this small town south of New Orleans.

St. Pierre, his wife, Sharon, and 15-year-old daughter Brittney rode out the hurricane at home. Had the storm come ashore west of Lafourche, “We were going to save ourselves on the boat because the water was going to come,” he says. The water never came; Katrina landed east of the bayou. “It turned at the last possible moment. If it had kept on, it would have hit us dead on.”

The levees around Lafourche kept the Gulf waters at bay. St. Pierre doubts they would have if Lafourche had taken the brunt of Katrina’s 140-mph winds and 20-foot storm surge. “We were lucky,” he says. “We rode it out. It was scary, and it was rough.”

Those who didn’t evacuate Lafourche hunkered down for 13 hours during the storm, enduring stretches of 70- to 80-mph winds and blasts to 150 mph. St. Pierre says he designed his home to take a hurricane. It’s built of cinder block 7 feet off the water with half-inch plywood interior walls. “Everything’s tied together,” he says. “The walls aren’t coming down in this house.” But those walls wouldn’t have protected the St. Pierres from a

20-foot wall of water. “My wife said they won’t stay next time. They’ll leave without me.”

After Katrina, the St. Pierres moved aboard Mom and Dad, with its generator, air conditioning and well-stocked galley. Long before the National Guard arrived, the shrimper was giving away the $9 blocks of ice to neighbors so they could save the food in their refrigerators.

When “the cavalry” did arrive, the family was glad to see them. Troops passed out water, ice and the now-familiar hurricane staple, Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs. Just add water, and it heats up — no electricity required. In Lafourche, ravioli MREs get rave reviews. “It’s good,” St. Pierre says.

Like many trawler captains, St. Pierre says shrimping is down for the count but not KOed. The industry lost entire fleets east of New Orleans — at Grand Isle, Plaquimines, and St. Bernard, as well as Pass Christian, Biloxi and Gulfport in Mississippi. Shrimp processing plants are devastated, and many may never reopen. Ice is hard to find, and debris fouls the waters that shrimpers trawl. St. Pierre says there are opportunities to shrimp west of New Orleans, but shrimp prices there are low and getting lower with foreign competition.

Meanwhile, diesel prices are soaring. Big white shrimp were fetching $1.50 a pound with the heads on before

Katrina; diesel was $2.40 a gallon. “We can’t afford that,” St. Pierre says.

Ten days after the storm, he was working with his brother and father cleaning up properties in posh neighborhoods on Grand Isle. He’s also a carpenter, and there’s a lot of rebuilding to do.

“There isn’t much left of the shrimp industry, but next year is always another year,” he says. “For now, I’ll survive doing something else.”

The volunteer

‘you are going to get shot at’

When Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco issued an

urgent plea for boats to rescue stranded survivors, Brad Reeves didn’t hesitate.

Reeves, whose family owns a bass boat dealership in Shreveport, La., pooled the resources of Reeves Marine, several boat and engine manufacturers, and his community to lead a caravan of 14 boats on trailers to New Orleans. Friends, neighbors and employees trailered the boats into the Big Easy a day after rising waters from Katrina breached two levees, flooding streets and trapping tens of thousands.

“It was tough when we got down there,” says Reeves, who is 31. The caravan deployed from a command post on Interstate 10 in New Orleans, which also served as a transfer point for hungry, thirsty, angry survivors desperate to get on buses headed to distant shelters.

“There were small riots breaking out, people beating each other up left and right to get onto the buses,” he says. Medevac teams were overwhelmed. “One lady — we saw her die. One minute she was alive, the next minute they were putting her into a body bag.”

Two police officers commandeered one of his boats. The police put flack jackets on him so he could trailer the boat to a launch ramp in the city, where he drove past looters rifling through an Exxon station.

Authorities were reluctant to send volunteer rescue workers into the city on boats until they had re-

established order. Reeves says hundreds of volunteers with boats waited to go in and help, but looters and snipers early on held the rescue effort hostage with their violence.

“We were told, ‘If you go down there with your boat, you are going to get shot at — at least once,’” he says. Boats were prizes of war.

The Coast Guard diverted Reeves’ contingent to Slidell, a city on the northeastern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Launching out of Slidell, they bypassed New Orleans to help shrimpers in St. Bernard Parish. “It was a huge community,” Reeves says. “Most of those guys rode the storm out on their boats, and most of them survived. We took the shrimp boat guys off their boats and to safer ground.”

Reeves says the smell of decay was almost unbearable. He saw dead rats, dead deer, dead bodies. The volunteers had been instructed to tie the bodies to buoys set out as collection points.

The Shreveport boats moved some 60 people off the shrimp boats, then began searching through the upscale Venetian Isle community, where they found families holed up on the third floor of their homes, water 20 feet deep lapping at the windows. Remarkably, most of these survivors didn’t want to leave. The rescuers motored back and forth to Slidell — 83 miles round-trip — for supplies for the holdouts.

One, John Scordill, a volunteer firefighter, told them he’d thought he was going to die and started to cry as the water began to lap at his third floor. “He knew he was finished,” Reeves says. “He climbed up into his attic, but then the water started to recede.”

Reeves says he had hoped to do more in the six days he was in the hurricane zone, but they did help some people and were happy about that. He also felt good about the cooperative spirit of the venture.

Reeves’ hometown donated a trailer full of food, water and soda, and he fielded hundreds of calls from people volunteering to help. “If I’d had 600 boats, I could have had 600 people to run them,” he says.

The yacht club members

‘we can start over again’

Hurricane Katrina evacuees Erston and Karen Reisch were in a hotel room in Houston when they saw the television images of the Southern Yacht Club — their yacht club, one of the nation’s oldest — on fire.

“The club’s gone,” says Karen Reisch.

Indeed, the building is gone, but the historic yacht club on Lake Pontchartrain’s south shore is a New Orleans institution. It has existed since 1849 and no doubt will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes. “We can get things going again if we just put two trailers out there,” she says. “We can start over again.”

Reisch says authorities believe the 56-year-old structure caught fire after a gas line broke. The first floor flooded; the second burned. Fire trucks couldn’t get through the flood waters to put the blaze out.

Reisch says in the storm’s aftermath looters tried to make off with Southern’s committee boat — a classic Bruno Stillman-built lobster boat, the Madden Randal — which was at the docks in front of the club.

Subcontractors who were moving men and equipment to work on the breached levee commandeered the

Madden Randal, says club commodore Corky Potts, who chased the men down in a friend’s boat and held them at bay until the Coast Guard came to question them.

Katrina decimated the Gulf Yachting Association, an organization of yacht clubs that host racing on the Gulf of Mexico. A message board on the association’s Web site says that in addition to Southern, the Fairhope Yacht Club in Alabama and the Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs and Pass Christian yacht clubs in Mississippi are “gone.” The Mobile and Lake Forest (Ala.) yacht clubs are severely damaged. Reisch says the New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain yacht clubs still are standing.

The Reisches — he’s 65, she’s 58 — returned to their home in Mandeville on the lake’s north shore to minor damage: a hole in their garage roof and mountains of debris in their yard, but two-thirds of the homes in their neighborhood are unlivable. Their boat, a Gulfstar 41, was spared at its dock at the Heron’s Way Marina in Mande-ville, but the couple saw a boat impaled on a piling there, and three 30-footers washed ashore near the marina.

“We’re here; we’re whole. That’s what counts,” says Erston Reisch. Like a lot of people, the Reisches are taking in family who weren’t as fortunate. Erston’s brother’s house in Bay St. Louis, Miss., was demolished by surge. A sister’s home in Metairie, La., was under water.

The Reisches have army cots and air mattresses for 12; they were expecting at least eight for an indefinite stay. “Why not? This is family,” Karen Reisch says. “Come on down. We were lucky.”

The Southern Yacht Club was founded in 1849 by a group of New Orleans sailors whose families spent their summers in the Mississippi coastal town of Pass Christian. The club was headquartered out of the Pass Christian Hotel for a time, and moved in 1857 to New Orleans, holding regattas on Lake Pontchartrain. Erston Reisch, who grew up sailing a wooden Lightning out of the club, has been a member for 53 years. Southern has faced hurricanes before, but not like this one, he says. “This one finished us.”

Karen Reisch, a US Sailing judge and member of its championships committee, was scheduled to fly to the American Yacht Club in Rye, N.Y., Sept. 12 for the Adams Cup U.S. women’s and Mallory Cup U.S. men’s sailing championships. Meanwhile, the Southern Yacht Club was exploring the possibility of chartering a boat or buying some manufactured housing as a temporary clubhouse, Potts says.

Reisch says it’s not too soon to start thinking about racing again. She thinks she has an extra set of committee-boat flags tucked away somewhere. “We can make do with what we have,” she says.

The coast guard officer

‘It looks like somebody dropped a pile of toothpicks around’

Coast Guard Petty Officer Stephen Sanders saw the gratitude in their eyes.

“The smiles in their eyes told it all,” says Sanders, a 24-year-old flight mechanic who flew helicopter rescue missions into New Orleans. “I wouldn’t mind being here for three months, just for the smiles I get.”

Sanders operates the hoist for the rescue basket on an H-60 Jayhawk helicopter. He had been working 10-hour days rescuing survivors from the flood waters in New Orleans. Based out of a Coast Guard air station in Mobile, Ala., his and 15 other H-60s were flying daily over the Mississippi coast to New Orleans searching for rescue opportunities. “The damage is catastrophic,” says Sanders. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks like somebody dropped a pile of toothpicks around.”

In their first hoist, at an apartment a quarter-mile west of New Orleans’ downtown, the chopper crew spotted a white sheet on a bed post hanging from a balcony four stories above 12-foot-deep flood waters. The chopper came in close enough to see movement through the windows. Six adults and three children were holed up.

“It was a tight, tight spot,” Sanders says. The pilot maneuvered the helicopter in close and lowered a swimmer onto the balcony. “When you’re putting the basket in at a diagonal, the pilot can’t see. That’s what I’m there for.” He becomes the pilot’s eyes, helping him drop the basket on a bull’s-eye. The swimmer prepared the survivors to climb into the basket a few at a time.

“They were all ready to come up,” says Sanders. “We got down to hover, then no one wanted to do it. They were intimidated.” No amount of coaxing could get them into the basket for the hoist to safety, so the crew left food and water, and continued their search.

In one day alone Sanders’ chopper airlifted 25 people, some from the now-infamous convention center, to the airport for transport to shelters, others from pickup points on roads and highways. They wrestled 250- and 300-pound people in wheelchairs into the helicopter. At one stop, they weren’t sure they could squeeze a little 70-year-old woman aboard because they were so full. “When she found out there was room, her face just lit up like it was Christmas,” he says. “It was great.”

This story was repeated thousands of times over several weeks, as Coast Guard aircraft and small boats evacuated thousands of victims from the hurricane zones. As of Sept. 9 — 11 days after Katrina — the Coast Guard forces based in Mobile alone had saved 4,800 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Altogether, Coast Guard men and women found and saved more than 24,000 Katrina survivors. The agency deployed more than 3,000 of its people, 50 aircraft, 25 cutters, and hundreds of small boats

to the rescue effort. Sanders, who normally flies out of the Coast Guard air station in St. Petersburg, Fla., had been pulled off drug and migrant interdiction patrols in the Bahamas to do the rescue work. He says not one of the people they rescued groused or complained. “Everybody we picked up was happy and excited,” he says.

That made his work easier and the job more satisfying, especially after seeing the devastation. “You forget that you’re hungry; you forget that you’re tired when you see that,” he says. “You realize that your problems aren’t really so bad.”