Janine Hayes was working her shift at the Port of Call restaurant on Esplanade Avenue, at the edge of the French Quarter, when the deluge started Saturday afternoon.
She and her co-workers noticed the water was pooling faster than it does in a typical summer storm. Alarmed, they started keeping a closer watch. And during one of these periodic checks, a co-worker saw something worrisome — some kind of black apparatus in the water.
A closer look revealed the unidentified item was a wheelchair. In it was a paralyzed man, struggling to keep his head above water.
"It was crazy," Hayes said, adding that several waiters and others ran outside immediately to help.
"It took all their strength to get that man’s face out of the water and lift the whole apparatus up and get him up on the dry sidewalk," she added. "And he was crying."
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Hayes' story was one of many harrowing tales to emerge from Saturday's flooding, a freak event that meteorologists and city officials said dropped between 1 and 10 inches of rainfall over a few hours in the New Orleans metro area.
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WWL-TV meteorologist Chris Franklin said that any storm producing more than 2 inches of rain is considered a "heavy" rain event, but what compounded Saturday's storm was the speed with which such a volume of water fell. He called it "extremely rare."
City officials said many neighborhoods saw rainfall amounts with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year, a so-called 100-year event.
"It just sat there for two to three hours," Franklin said. "These are not common occurrences. You can go dozens of years without this kind of event happening."
Even so, Saturday's storm came on the heels of another sudden downpour that flooded parts of Mid-City just two weeks earlier. But this one was clearly worse. In fact, it led some New Orleanians to draw comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, or the unnamed but catastrophic storm of May 8, 1995.
That storm, the most destructive rainfall event to afflict the city in recent decades, dropped as much as 20 inches of rain in places, over a roughly 24-hour period.
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Hayes' adventures Saturday didn't end with the rescue of the man in the wheelchair. Her car flooded and stalled on St. Bernard Avenue, between St. Claude and North Claiborne avenues. She was forced to call a neighbor to pick her up and take her to her Gentilly home.
"It was like a mini-Katrina," she said. "And now I'm afraid to drive."
The damage from the sudden flood is still being assessed. Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office on Sunday estimated that hundreds of vehicles were flooded.
With many roads impassable, some residents simply gave up on driving.
Among them was Tegan Wendland, a reporter on coastal issues for WWNO-FM, who spent about four hours trying to drive to her home in the 7th Ward on Saturday afternoon before she finally gave up. Then she waded to a friend’s house to hop into an aluminum canoe.
From 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. Sunday, the two women formed an impromptu rescue squad in Treme, Bayou St. John and Mid-City. Wendland said it was never more than a few minutes before she picked up new passengers.
“Some of them were really upset, experiencing Katrina PTSD stuff,” she said. “It was really intense to see that, especially as someone who hasn’t experienced Katrina.”
Wendland remembered one woman in particular, who had only waterlogged socks to protect her feet from the muck and unseen dangers under the water.
“She was soaking wet, just on her phone the whole time crying and saying this was just like Katrina and she was so scared,” Wendland said.
The canoe crew helped a paramedic rescue a woman experiencing medical distress, a family that needed to collect its belongings from a flooded house, and a woman who needed to get her money out of her car.
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In Mid-City, where some of the worst flooding occurred, North Broad Street became a linear parking lot for blocks.
Matt Witterkorn described hundreds of people milling around near Orleans Avenue and North Broad, where he had gotten stuck for hours after trying to drive through the mess to get home. Many were barefoot and had abandoned their cars on the neutral ground.
"Everybody just piled up like ants trying to find the high ground," Witterkorn said. "It just broke my heart to see it."
In Lakeview, residents reported similarly shocking scenes. David Goddard, an art gallery director, began biking around his neighborhood after his family nearly got stuck trying to drive on water-covered streets. He shot pictures Saturday evening showing floodwaters that reached the bottom of restaurant windows on Harrison Avenue.
Videos posted on social media showed the Hotel Monteleone taking in water, too, in an area of the French Quarter not usually known to flood. Parts of Bourbon Street were also inundated, and around the corner, on Iberville Street, the venerable oyster purveyor Felix's also had standing water.
In other areas of town, the Circle Food Store and the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club building were flooded as well, putting out of commission two African-American community landmarks that also suffered serious damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Zulu’s president estimated that club could be shuttered for two months, and Circle Food's owner said he had no idea how long the store would need to clean up its swamped shelves and coolers.
Dwayne Boudreaux said he was at home in Gentilly when he got the call that his store was flooding. He drove with his uncle down a “maze” of flooded streets to get to the store, he said. Water was still rushing in by the time he got there.
The water claimed thousands of dollars' worth of meat, frozen foods and produce. A display of greeting cards was ruined up to the second row.
“I was about to cry, but I started laughing, making jokes about it,” Boudreaux said. “I was sending pictures to my dad like, ‘Here we go again.’ ”
Some of those blocked in by the floodwaters had it better. A few soaked revelers enjoyed a mini-kayak party that had formed by early evening on Hagan Avenue near Orleans Avenue, as neighbors recorded video on their phones.
Wendland said that at the end of the night, she helped ferry a large group of stranded women out of the Broad Theater, which flooded for the second time in two weeks. The cinema's staff treated the women to snacks as they waited for the waters to recede.
“They were there to see ‘Girls Trip,’ and they all got stuck there. They were having their own girls’ trip,” she said.