Stranded in New Orleans’ Shadow

Times Staff Writer

Chalmette has been cut off from the world for six days.

During that time, trapped on the second floor of her house, Mary Smith listened to her neighbors pounding desperately on their roofs, and cried because she could not help them.

When night came, she heard the eerie baying of dogs, noticing that every night their number seemed to be fewer, until there was only one dog baying. She asked her fiance to cut off her long, dark hair with cuticle scissors because the heat and the stench were more than she could bear.

On Saturday, when state rescue workers arrived in Chalmette, Smith, 45, was able to leave. She was unsteady on her feet, pale and nauseated from dehydration, and her shorn hair stuck out in tufts. As he waited for her to receive medical attention, Kenneth Lobre, her fiance, had a question for the first people he saw from the outside world: Where were the federal troops?


“We should have had help days ago,” said Lobre, 35, an offshore oil worker. “I know at least 25 people have died in the last two days. All the parish officials abandoned us. All the police abandoned us. The local people saved each other.”

Chalmette is a small fishing and oil producing community about seven miles east of New Orleans, the kind of place where, Smith said, “when someone’s kid gets hurt, everybody knows. When someone dies, everybody goes to the funeral.”

Last week, as rescue personnel scrambled to address stranded populations in downtown New Orleans, Chalmette was “an island,” said Joey DiFatta, St. Bernard Parish Council chairman. “That island was our people helping our people.”

The losses were just coming into focus Saturday. A storm surge estimated at 25 feet had receded, leaving yellowish watermarks along the retail strip, but parts of the city were under an expanse of water, with a sheen of oil and a sickly sweet smell. On the front of houses, search-and rescue teams had spray-painted the numbers of dead found inside. One house had a blue six.

The water rose 10 feet in 10 minutes on the morning of the storm, residents said, so fast you could watch a wall of water advancing down residential streets. Sheriff Jack Stephens would not estimate a death toll, but spoke of several large groups of people who had died together.

Thirty-one elderly residents of a nursing home died “in their sleep” when their facility was flooded, he said. And in a subdivision, rescue personnel had found the bodies of 21 people who had tied themselves together, he said, probably in an attempt to evacuate. The scenes were so disturbing that 30 of his deputies could no longer work because of fatigue and emotional overload, Stephens said.

The federal response, he said, has been “woefully inadequate.”

“We’re the richest and most powerful country in the world, and we can’t do anything to keep old ladies from dying on the cement,” Stephens said. “For the last five days, we’ve had people dying in front of our eyes every hour, simply because we couldn’t get help.

“We’ve been on our own. Lives that were saved down here were saved because of local efforts.”

A rescue crew of about 100 vehicles was stalled outside the city for about three hours Saturday morning. Firefighters from Shreveport mustered at 4 a.m., hoping to launch boats into Chalmette and rescue people from their homes. When they arrived at 9 a.m., the boats were there, and the firefighters were there, but no buses were on hand to transport evacuees to hospitals or shelters.

Emergency management officials “were unaware that there was a request for buses,” an aide told Assistant Fire Chief Margene McCoy in a radio transmission. Ordering the 20 buses necessary to carry evacuees out of Chalmette, he said, would take at least two hours. McCoy heaved a deep sigh and called off the boat rescue to wait for the buses.

As he stood beside the convoy, Paul Verrette, a doctor, smoked cigarettes, red-eyed and increasingly agitated. Verrette, 48, has practiced internal medicine at Chalmette’s hospital for 15 years. He said he had been trying to get rescue crews into the city for days. The delay over buses was another maddening frustration.

“Why doesn’t everything get done?” he asked. “They’re still out there.”

Another hour passed. Ronnie Blum, a 46-year-old volunteer, sat on a pontoon boat in the parked convoy. “The longer we sit here with our hands tied like this, there are people dying,” he said.

Boats began to arrive from Chalmette, carrying survivors. They sat in the shade of the Shreveport firefighters’ triage unit, waiting to be bused out of the area, and recalled six days cut off from the rest of the world. Several of them asked what day it was.

Smith, an assistant manager at Walgreen’s drugstore, recalled watching houses around hers detach from their foundations and start crashing into the floodwaters. She took pictures of the rising water so that, if she died, her family would know what happened.

Over the next two days, she and Lobre played endless games of Yahtzee as they waited for the water to go down. It didn’t. What happened instead was this: Boats began to pass under their window, driven by local people offering to throw necessities up to them. Batteries sailed up and so did cigarettes.

“It was like a Mardi Gras parade, but instead of beads, it was food, and lighters, and dry towels,” Lobre said.

On the third day, the two hitched a ride on a boat to Chalmette High School, which had been made into a shelter. A woman bore a child there -- named Katrina -- and dead bodies were stored behind a stage, where the children couldn’t see them.

Michael Couture, 31, is an avid fan of the reality show “Survivor,” and always thought he would be good at it. What happened over six days, he said, was a real-life version: For the first few days, most of the stranded people focused on themselves. But then a community of interests developed. People raided local stores and distributed what they found.

Bruce Velez, a construction worker, made his way to houses all over the city; among the people he rescued was an elderly woman who had climbed on top of her refrigerator to escape the rising water.

Larry Strahub spent much of the week with 17 strangers in an apartment building. Personalities clashed at times, he said. But before he left -- he paddled 15 miles to find help on Saturday -- they planned a reunion.

As the days passed, though, it became harder and harder to fight back a feeling of dread. Couture monitored the water -- its coloration, its temperature, its smell -- and realized that he was surrounded by the dead bodies of people and animals.

If you weren’t a strong person, he realized, you wouldn’t make it.

“It was a long six days,” he said. “You started to think and think.”

One woman stared wordlessly and rocked back and forth as the group waited for the buses. Another woman rescued Saturday died on the way to the triage area.

Terry Hendrix, who had cared for the woman while they were trapped together, said her name was Eunice Breaux, that she was 76, suffered from multiple sclerosis and had been paralyzed from the neck down.

But there was little time to take in the news. Hendrix, along with the woman’s daughter, boarded a school bus, leaving her body behind. Many bodies were left behind, Lobre said. He said he had a lasting anger that, in its hour of need, Chalmette had been forgotten.

“Now I can understand how Iraqis felt, when they were promised certain things by the government. We were promised certain things,” he said, “and we didn’t get them.”