In this issue, Gambit Weekly renews its annual tradition of honoring New Orleanians of the Year, paying tribute to people who made a positive difference in our community in 2005. This year's honorees -- the first responders of Hurricane Katrina -- certainly deserve recognition for their selfless sacrifices in the face of adversity.
In this space, I'd like to take a break from my usual routine of bashing politicians and instead pay tribute to some non-New Orleanians who made a big difference in my neck of the woods. Their names are Tony Clayton, Captain Sam Barbera III and Brandon Fremin; they're all from the Baton Rouge area.
Four days after Katrina washed over New Orleans, at the height of the looting and flooding, they helped me get back into town to check on my house and my neighbors. How we got to that point, and what happened afterwards, is why these guys are special.
It started Wednesday night, Aug. 30, in Baton Rouge. I had just arrived from West Monroe, where I had taken my parents two days before Katrina landed. After four and half days of watching network news, I needed a drink.
Almost as soon as I entered Churchill's bar, I spotted Tony Clayton. If his name sounds familiar, it's because you saw him on TV every night during the trial of Derrick Todd Lee, the Baton Rouge serial killer. Tony is the prosecutor who convicted Lee and got him the death penalty. I had met Tony last spring and we became fast friends. When he saw me in Churchill's, he immediately asked, "What do you need? How can I help?"
Almost reflexively, I answered, "I need a boat."
I had seen the madness in New Orleans, including the floodwaters from the 17th Street Canal and the "mandatory" evacuation. Newscasters told us that no one could get back into the city, yet it seemed more accurate to say that no one could get out. There were lots of reports of looting and violence downtown, but the silence from Lakeview was deafening. The worst part was just not knowing.
Tony lives 30 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, in a beautiful part of Pointe Coupee Parish. He has a great life and an active law practice there, and the last thing he needed was to give up a week of his time facilitating some fool's errand of mine. He couldn't wait.
Two mornings later, Tony showed up with Captain Sam and Brandon, a pair of military veterans as well as employees of the Baton Rouge District Attorney's office. We were all armed to the teeth. How Tony convinced them to do this I'll never know, but I can never repay them for it.
We made it to Madisonville quickly, launched Captain Sam's boat and headed toward the South shore. Halfway across, Tony turned to me and said, "Clancy, you realize that we may have to bring some of your neighbors back." I nodded.
We all had images of looters running through our minds, so we pulled up a few hundred yards from shore and checked things out through binoculars. In the distance, we saw smoke rising.
The levee and Lakeshore Drive were deserted. All seemed calm enough, and Sam eased his boat into the mouth of Bayou St. John. Even with the tide "up," the water was only about two feet deep there. Tony, Brandon and I waded to the seawall while Sam stayed in the boat. We didn't dare leave it unattended.
As we walked toward the Lake Vista neighborhood, the sights and sounds were surreal. It was dead quiet and hot as hell. Tree limbs were down everywhere. Some entire trees were snapped at the base. I couldn't wait to get to my house.
As it turns out, my immediate neighbors and I were among the lucky ones. We didn't even have street flooding. Others weren't so fortunate. Homes along Robert E. Lee Boulevard took upwards of 4 feet of water -- and the floodwater was still there.
From inside my house, I could see Tony chatting with one of my elderly neighbors, a lady of a certain age, as they say. Tony spoke to her for a long time and looked as though he was trying to reassure her. Something wasn't right.
The lady, Elsie Rubin, needed to get out. She was not feeling well at all, and she worried that she might not be able to leave. "Ma'am," Tony told her, "I promise you that I will not leave Lake Vista without you."
"I have to go get my husband," she said.
"I won't move until I see you again," Tony assured her.
She started to cry as she turned to go home.
"Man," Tony said to me a few minutes later, "we gotta get these people out."
We did, thanks to Tony, Captain Sam and Brandon. Sam eased his boat dangerously close to the seawall so that we could carry Miss Elsie and Dr. Wally Rubin aboard. They smiled from ear to ear the entire way back across the lake. The next morning, they flew to California to be with family.
I have to confess that my initial motive for going back home was purely selfish -- I wanted to see my house. Tony, Captain Sam and Brandon, however, had no reason whatsoever to make that trip across 27 miles of open water -- other than human kindness. Tony, in fact, made it several more times.
A few days later Tony got a call from Dr. Rubin and Miss Elsie. It made his day, and I was glad of that. He, Captain Sam and Brandon sure made mine and the Rubins' many times over.
Amidst all the ugliness that followed Katrina, they gave us reason to believe in the inherent goodness of people. And for that, they'll always be in my book of heroes.