They all remember the piercing wails that echoed from the eaves, the pitiless swelter and pitch-black nights, and the gunfire.
Some of those early rescuers still marvel at that first trundle up the St. Claude Avenue bridge to its urgent vista.
Waters lapped at the rooftops of the Lower 9th Ward. People were riding on their peaks. Corpses bobbed, snagging on branches and telephone poles. The roiling water obscured obstacles: fences, vehicles, street signs.
The first of the rescuers launched their boats from the bridge.
“All you saw was rooftops,” recalled Harbor Police Chief Robert Hecker, one of the first to reach the bridge that Monday, the day Hurricane Katrina hit. “And to hear those screams, knowing you had two chances if you went to your attic. The first chance was if you had an attic side window, and the second was if you had the wherewithal to punch that window out, you could climb to the roof. But a lot of those houses didn’t even have those vents.”
Hecker’s officers hauled two boats along the river to Poland Avenue and joined a few private skiffs that already had ventured into the foul water.
They snatched axes off an abandoned firetruck while state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries agents mobilized a flotilla.
A dumbstruck man stood atop one house with his dog, Port of New Orleans CEO Gary LaGrange recalled.
“He was sweeping the roof of his house,” LaGrange said. “Everybody was (like), ‘What do we do now?’ ”
Such are the memories, buffed and worn over a decade of telling, from people thrust into action, with or without badges, working radios, rescue gear or access to fuel.
Many of those ground-level rescuers, sworn and civilian alike, are planning 10th anniversary reunions in New Orleans and beyond later this month, though no one seems to be organizing anything big for a rescue effort defined by chaos.
“Dutch hovercraft, Israeli divers — the first people made it to St. Bernard was the Canadians,” said former state Sen. Walter Boasso, of Chalmette, who helped lead rescue efforts in the destroyed parish. “We had Canadian flags flying in St. Bernard on Wednesday and Thursday, before the U.S. Army.”
The prevailing sentiment among Louisiana rescuers, with a decade of hindsight, is pride, mostly. And some bitter residue.
Some say their efforts never got their due, eclipsed by more lasting impressions of the Katrina response: havoc and dysfunction, grotesque misdeeds by New Orleans police officers, lawlessness and FEMA delays on the one hand, photogenic images of derring-do from military aircraft on the other.
U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and those from the Louisiana National Guard and elsewhere were airborne by Tuesday, crisscrossing the sky and grabbing the helpless from rooftops. According to Coast Guard figures, an estimated 12,000 people whirred to safety from its sorties.
The feds kept numbers.
But below the radar, uncounted thousands of the stranded were moved to dry land by a humble and motley array of official and unofficial actors, working together or at odds, some more trustworthy than others.
NOPD at best, worst
New Orleans police officers seemed to run the gamut.
“I know there were some bad incidents that occurred with the New Orleans Police Department that got a hell of a lot of press, and deservedly so,” retired NOPD Capt. Donald Curole said. “But what really upsets me is, I saw more heroism and more good deeds and self-sacrifice from those guys in blue that never got reported.”
At Curole’s home on the water in Slidell, a framed photo of a People magazine cover dated Sept. 12, 2005, adorns the wall. It shows Curole in his white captain’s shirt, a gun on his hip, a diapered baby in his arms, a firefighter by his side, water everywhere.
Curole grew up on Music Street, the son of a cop who ran water rescues during Hurricane Betsy 50 years ago. At age 10, Curole saw snakes, downed power lines, nasty water.
He shared those hazards with the 22 Public Integrity Bureau cops he oversaw as they holed up at the riverfront Hilton on Aug. 29. Those cautions, he said, proved meaningless. Before dawn, wind gusts were bulging the hotel windows, tearing into the roof, releasing shrapnel. Police radio chatter started before dawn. Fellow cops were stuck in their attics. The city’s emergency radio system was largely shot, cables damaged and generators flooded out beneath many towers.
By Monday afternoon, Curole was in the water near where he grew up and later patrolled as a young 5th District officer.
They launched a borrowed boat from the Elysian Fields Avenue on-ramp, running up North Galvez Street. One man stood on his roof that first day, pointing out occupied homes. At dusk, they went back for him, Curole said, and the man started pulling children out from a hole in the roof. A submerged fence blocked the boat.
Just then, a firefighter motored by on a Jet Ski, he said.
“He went right over the fence, got to the house, and he’d get the babies from the house and bring them back to the boat,” Curole said. “I wish I could tell you who he was. He was absolutely heroic. I’m not a real religious person. It just seemed like every time we needed something, it showed up out of the blue.”
The blue was about all they had. Police radios died, rescue gear was makeshift and logistics were drawn up on the spot.
Among those leading NOPD’s rescue efforts was Capt. Jeff Winn, a SWAT commander later fired for failing to tell superiors what he knew about the body of Henry Glover, shot by another cop on Sept. 2 behind an Algiers strip mall and then burned.
Other rescuers also would face rebuke for their alleged roles in Katrina crimes, a paradox of heroism and villainy wrapped in NOPD blue.
Hecker said he saw Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann, later indicted but acquitted in the Glover incident, pulling numerous people to safety: “He was in that water,” Hecker said.
Curole himself took the stand in the trial of five cops who shot civilians on the Danziger Bridge and then covered it up. By way of explaining the NOPD’s cursory initial investigation into the deadly shooting, which left two dead and four others badly injured, he testified, “Saving lives was more important than sending cops to the bridge.”
Now, Curole accepts that some of his fellow cops lost their bearings. Some killed. Others stole, including a raid on scores of Cadillacs from a local dealership.
“We didn’t only steal Cadillacs. We stole buses,” he said, without apology.
He’d spotted a civilian driving an RTA bus down St. Claude a few days into the rescue. The man told him the buses were by the wharf.
“I grabbed him. ‘What are you doing here?’ He says, ‘I’m coming to get another bus; we need to get people.’ Which they were. They were getting people,” Curole said.
“I said, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. You can take any bus you want; you gotta show me how you do it.’ There’s a battery switch. He knew exactly where it was. We got a couple of buses out of that yard. We used them to start transporting people so they didn’t have the sun beating down on them.”
Curole, whose home had been flooded, retired the following year. Scores of others would leave a department reeling from the firing of the chief and the ignominy of mass desertions, the Danziger Bridge shootings and widespread allegations of thievery.
Records show at least 136 NOPD officers — one out of every 13 — were disciplined for Katrina-related misdeeds, a figure that includes only those who appealed.
Fewer than half of the 1,730 sworn NOPD officers who were on the force prior to Katrina remain. Still, of a steeply reduced force of about 1,150 now, more than two-thirds are veterans of the disaster.
“It never leaves you,” Curole said. “It was chaos.”
‘My people are drowning’
As rescuers deployed that Monday, a text popped up on Nick Gautreaux’s phone at Nash’s Restaurant in Broussard, just outside Lafayette.
Gautreaux, a state lawmaker and part Italian, looked down.
“Dago, my people are drowning,” it said.
The message was from Boasso, a fellow legislator, who was headed toward St. Bernard Parish in a motorcade of wildlife agents and some 60 boats that wound through Old Metairie, “driving on people’s lawns,” he said.
The word spread, and by morning, perhaps 500 boats from across south Louisiana packed the lot of the Acadiana Mall in Lafayette — an armada later dubbed the “Cajun Navy.”
“I warned people when I got on the loudspeaker: ‘If you’ve never seen someone dead or you’re afraid of the smell of death, now’s not the time to come.’ I don’t think one person turned around,” he said. “Law enforcement didn’t have a clue there was going to be 500 boats, these civilians coming. I think they realized later on it was the best thing that ever happened.”
The ad hoc group often teamed with state Wildlife and Fisheries agents on rescues.
Ten years later, Gautreaux still can’t shake some of the visions.
In Chalmette, he saw a corpse dangling by a 4-foot rope attached to a roof.
“I think some of the people tied themselves so they could be found. His body was melting,” he said. “That’s a vivid image that stays in my mind every time I think of Chalmette and hurricanes. It’s like a flashback every hurricane season. It’s like it’s ingrained in my brain.”
Gautreaux also recalled finding two shrimp boats filled with scores of stranded hospital staffers, including two pregnant women, near Violet.
On the way there, he’d run across a family set up with a barbecue pit on their balcony, surrounded by 9 feet of water. They said they were fine, to move on and get others, though an older woman in the group was towing what looked like an oxygen tank.
When state agents returned, Gautreaux said, they learned the woman had perished.
“This old lady, no one will ever know who she is. She sacrificed her life. Two more babies came into this world because of the good graces of this lady,” said Gautreaux, referring to the shrimp boat rescue.
Those twins, Anna and Anthony Blenet, turned 9 in March and live in Lacombe.
Their mother, Sarah Blenet, a nurse, spent two harrowing days in the flooded Chalmette Medical Center and then the St. Bernard jail before boarding the shrimp boat, the Blessed Assurance, she said. They ended up stranded on land by the river, before Gautreaux and a state crew reached them.
“I was very paranoid by that time. I was scared to death. I’m pregnant. I’m sick. I need to find my family. Nobody knows where I am,” she said.
“You watch the water. You look at things and think it’ll never happen to you.”
Boats target 9th Ward
Boasso, meanwhile, was scrambling in St. Bernard. All but one of the boats he’d led down the interstate were gone when he crossed into the parish, many of them patrolling the Lower 9th Ward, he said.
He sidled up to Chalmette High School, where people were trapped upstairs. A few were dead. Boasso said the rescuers eventually would string corpses together to keep them from floating away.
“If you lived in a neighborhood and you had a fishing boat, you were in a fishing boat picking up people,” he said of the ragtag rescue force. “In the 9th Ward, nobody had boats.”
He said he spent most of that Tuesday in the 9th Ward, reaching the bridge at daylight, accompanied by Wildlife and Fisheries agents, whom he considers undisputed heroes of the rescue effort.
Boasso said he still hears “the screaming and the hollering” from rooftops.
“We were breaking into attics. One guy, he spent the night on the roof with an alligator and an opossum,” he said.
“They had a man with three kids in his arms come walking through the water. He lost one of his children. He had four,” recalled Boasso, who went on to finish a distant second to Bobby Jindal in the 2007 race for governor.
“We had no communication. I mean nothing. We had boats in the area. If we would have had a radio or a cellphone, I don’t know if we could have saved the kid. We went back looking for that baby, holding on to an automobile or maybe a power line or whatever. We couldn’t find this child.”
Working in the Lower 9th Ward at times took a dangerous turn.
“I’ll never forget this guy pulled his gun on us. He was going to shoot us if we didn’t rescue him. We were going after the kids. The kids and the women. And I never looked down the barrel of a gun before,” Boasso said. “You’re so tired, and you see everything destroyed. You see dead bodies floating and all these people hollering for help and here’s a man going to point a gun at you. What is wrong with this?”
Irrationality manifested itself in other ways, too. Jefferson Parish deputies tried to keep pets off the boats to make room for people, Hecker said.
“People were saying, ‘I’ll just stay here,’ ” Hecker recalled. “They were literally saying they were going to die up there with their dog. That’s a strong love. They’re delirious. I told my guys, ‘Put the pets in the boat.’ ”
Among official rescuers, fights broke out over vehicles, fuel, authority. The feds, with their cache of fuel and rescue gear, were frequent targets of abuse.
Their rescue boats sat parked, some right near City Hall, while police scavenged, said retired NOPD Capt. Tim Bayard, who helped lead the police efforts.
Bayard had joined the Harbor Police at the St. Claude bridge on Monday, he said. He called the scene “whitewater rafting, and we had no training. We had no training at all to be doing what we were doing.”
Police were rescuing “anybody we could get our fingers on,” Bayard said.
Largely cut off from a federal operation based around Zephyr Field in Metairie, the NOPD ran its missions from the sally port at Harrah’s, with cops swiping watercraft and trucks where they found them, Bayard said.
“We didn’t know where FEMA was. They were coordinating everything out of Baton Rouge. I guess the birds were going up,” Bayard said of the helicopters. “They did a great job because they had the assets. We did a great job, and we didn’t have the assets.
“Hey, brother, we did a lot more positive than the negative. Granted, you had a few people die in the Danziger thing. Poor lady got her arm shot off. The Henry Glover thing, you know, was horrific. I understand that,” he said. “Take that and put it over there, and take this and look at the amount of people that we saved. How many people could have died if we don’t get … out there and do what we gotta do?”
Blame it on bad communication, said Dr. Joe Holley, who directed medical operations for a Tennessee-based FEMA search-and-rescue team. His was among four FEMA teams pre-positioned in Shreveport, according to retired Virginia deputy fire chief Jim Strickland, the incident support team leader.
Strickland said the team’s scouts struggled to reach the city and communicate with locals but “did some good things on Tuesday” — helped by local boaters — before kicking into high gear on Wednesday, engineering rescues and mapping grids.
Holley recalls getting flown into Jackson Barracks, “dropped off in that big field out there like a scene from Vietnam.” His unit later hooked up with local police and firefighters, who served as guides after the initial, frantic rescues.
Among the places they helped clear was the Lafon Nursing Home on Chef Menteur Highway, the scene of 22 deaths, he said.
“Every one of those patients that I saw were noncommunicative. They were terrible strokes, bedridden, had catheters in their bladders, feeding tubes,” he said. “They rode out the storm fine. It’s the flood that got ’em.”
Despite myriad documented failures in FEMA’s relief efforts, the notion that the agency simply didn’t show up is a fallacy, Strickland and Holley said. Holley said his group shepherded more than 1,000 people to safety.
“There was a lot of turf-war stuff there. If you can get to the (local) guys on the front lines, most of them are pretty amazing. It’s when you get into the management stuff. … There were a lot of those people who weren’t willing to admit they’d done a crappy job preparing their department or running their department,” he said of local police.
“You have to keep in mind, they had zero communications. How are you going to know what’s going on?”
Holley saw things that still disturb him: kids towing flat-screen TVs in a kiddie pool through chest-high water. Firemen commandeering cases of liquor. Wannabe, ill-prepared rescuers coming to help, only to need it themselves. Private airboat pilots racing about.
“A bunch of these yahoos” is how Holley described them. “Half those guys showed up with a six-pack ready to drink.”
State Police would later shut off the interstate to random outsiders. Holley said it helped, though some in the Cajun Navy think troopers overreacted and kept skilled boatmen at bay.
Holley, medical director for the Memphis Fire Department, agrees with many in that group that the courage and achievements of the low-tech water rescuers got lost in a grim national narrative of a botched disaster response finally made right by daring military pilots.
“Nothing looks better than hauling somebody into a helicopter,” Holley said. “We’re doing 500 (rescues) on the ground where nobody sees us, using a beat-up pickup truck. We’re down in the middle of nowhere.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.