The harrowing, heartbreaking stories of Katrina evacuees are innumerable, with many containing similar accounts of life-changing horror – first, waiting for eventual rescue from their homes submerged by the killer floodwaters, and then surviving the filth and crime of spending dark nights with thousands of other refugees on the streets of New Orleans.
Dr. Edward Lias interviewed six evacuated families at the Fredonia Hill Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, last weekend. The church is hosting between 200 and 300 people from New Orleans, many of whom make up incomplete families still searching for lost loved ones.
Lias noted several common experiences among those he interviewed:
- Surprise at the powerful incoming water hours after the storm was over;
- Fist fights and violence from gangs who wanted to loot and steal from anyone who had clothing, food or water – endured for three days and nights;
- Utter filth that even pets would not step in – endured for many days;
- The futility of waving to helicopters who had to rescue people in tree tops before rescuing those who were on roofs or hanging out of upper windows;
- Pushing and shoving when busses arrived with little or no respect for the need of families to stay together; and
- Six hours on a bus in soiled, smelly clothing – then the first good meal and cold water at the Texas border.
Melvin Davis and his wife survived, but their three children are missing, Lias reports:
Thinking the Davises had survived the storm, it was a shock to suddenly see water coming into their two-story house. The levee had broken and water rose in the house, about six inches every two minutes.
Grabbing a few things, they went upstairs. Peeking down they saw their refrigerator and freezer floating near the ceiling, along with cosmetics, trash and broken sheet rock from falling ceilings.
Soon water was coming up through the second floor into upstairs rooms. Then it was knee-deep, then waist-deep on the second floor. The storm had blown out several windows in the lower and upper floors so when water rose to that height, it rapidly filled the house.
Part of the peaked roof had blown off in the storm, so with a hammer they knocked off roof boards and escaped to the sloped roof.
Melvin has one leg missing, so they placed a big loud speaker on a table so that he could struggle to the roof with his crutches.
Melvin Davis (All photos: Edward Lias)
Davis was rescued from his roof via a body hoist and helicopter Sept. 1. He was dropped onto a causeway underpass, where he endured the filth, violence and sickness commonly reported by refugees, before boarding a bus to Texas Sept. 3.
Ernest Putman, who doesn’t know the whereabouts of his son, was plucked off his roof after spending two days there. He was dropped off at the same causeway.
Writes Lias: “Putman experienced another two days of violence and fighting off looters. His unspeakable conditions involved pets, huge rats nibbling at people, trash, open sewage, soiled clothing and the smell of death in the air.”
James Thomas and Thelma Scott
James Thomas and Thelma Scott were able to boat from their home to a local school on Aug. 30, the day the levees broke and flooding New Orleans. The boat picked up several neighbors and evacuees reportedly had to push corpses out of the way to navigate the area.
Helicopters lifted everyone from the school to the infamous causeway underpass where a day and night of fighting, sniper shooting and threatening gangs prevented all possibility of sleep. Everyone had to keep fending off cat-sized rats and other animals that came in the darkness from all directions. There was no electricity, remember.
Busses arrived Saturday morning, taking them to the Texas border and then onward. Everyone remarks about the cold water and food at that border stop and how it was the first human kindness they had experienced throughout this ordeal.
Three members of ‘family’ of 10.
One impromptu “family” housed in Nacogdoches includes 10 people from the same New Orleans neighborhood who didn’t know each other before Katrina hit. There was need for group strength in fending off looters, so the ten people formed an informal bond.
After boating to the roof of a nearby bank, Aggie Licciardi spent what she called two days of “living hell.”
Besides fending off looters, who often were high or drunk after breaking into drug stores, the group had to prevent alligators from climbing onto the roof:
Alligators threatened to climb onto the roof, along with rats, sewage and swimming deer. Adrift were dead pets, dead bodies and stench. When rescuers came, there were people who said, “I will not abandon my pet.” So to save a life, an authority sometimes had to shoot the pet despite the owner’s screams while being forced into the helicopter rescue basket. Aggie managed to save her dog – somehow.
During the night you could hear people far and near on rooftops beating pans and lids together, calling for help. Meanwhile, floating by were dressers, freezers, boxes, garbage bags, bodies and sewage. After being lifted from the bank roof, they then experienced the causeway misfortune, covering themselves with garbage bags in the night to preserve warmth.
Aggie’s son, daughter and brothers were still missing or lost as of Monday.
A family from Saint Bernard could see one of the levees from their home and, when water first began flowing over the dam, they joked, “How nice – we have a waterfall now.” The joking ceased when the levee broke and water began gushing into the neighborhood, with the level rising around them about one foot per minute.
“For over 50 hours, [this family] was crushed away from bus doors as stronger people forced their way onto the vehicles,” Lias reported. “The bus drivers who tried to maintain order could not keep families together. A person getting onto the bus would say, ‘That’s my son and wife – right out there – get them on’ – but there was no way to enforce civility. When army personnel began to appear, order and civility gradually overcame lawlessness.”
The evacuees expressed gratitude for the help they now are receiving. The Red Cross is helping them to re-establish identification material, most of which was lost in the flood.