A Home for the Brave
In a deserted subdivision, past mobile homes blown inside out and power poles snapped in two, there is an unassuming home with a two-car garage, porcelain ducks on the dining table and a swing set in the backyard.
The 26 men and women inside sleep next to their guns, scrounge for food, rely on handouts for things like toilet paper, and steal cars.
Then they get up in the morning and try to save the city.
This is what it’s come to for the New Orleans Police Department, where authorities estimated Tuesday that 70% of the city’s 1,700 officers are homeless.
The department has been decimated by Hurricane Katrina. Two officers have put their guns in their mouths and killed themselves. More than 200 have quit. About 500 are unaccounted for. The rest have fought with looters, run out of ammunition, fended off criticism of their response to the storm and been knocked off rescue boats into the fetid stew that covers more than half the city.
For more than a week, they have dealt with personal tragedies no different from anyone else’s here -- apartments that are underwater, parents who are missing, children who are being shuttled from one shelter to the next.
Two dozen of them found their way to the home of Lt. David M. Benelli, 55, commander of the city’s sex crimes unit, and the woman he calls his child bride, Sgt. Becky Benelli, 42, assistant commander of the crime lab. The Benellis are cops to the core; they met at a traffic fatality and fell in love.
The officers at “Camp Benelli” in the Algiers area of New Orleans reflect the diversity of the department: 21 men and five women, black and white, 33-year veterans and patrol cops with six months under their belts. They have more than 300 years of combined service on the force.
And every morning, they find the strength to go to work.
Glenn Madison, 47, is a firearms instructor, a 22-year veteran of the force with an easy smile and biceps that stretch the fabric of his T-shirt. His story is typical of the officers staying at Camp Benelli.
His three children evacuated before the storm, and he has barely spoken with them since. His home is underwater in New Orleans East, a district on the northeast side. Two nights ago, he made his way back to Camp Benelli only to hear that a bus carrying nursing-home evacuees had been hijacked west of the city.
“Your daddy was on there,” one of his colleagues said.
Madison’s father, an 83-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, had been left with the others on the side of the road. After a frantic night on his cellphone, as the signal died again and again, Madison learned that his father had been picked up by another bus and was safe. He tried to sleep for a couple hours, then hit the streets again.
“It definitely isn’t for the pay,” the officer said Tuesday. “Believe it or not, this is where we live. New Orleans is our home. And this is our job.”
Like those of so many people in New Orleans, the plight of the officers at Camp Benelli began not so much with the hurricane itself but with the water that began creeping into the city the next day.
Most of the officers were bunking at the crime lab, which is in the central business district, when the hurricane hit Aug. 29. The water started rising around the building that Monday, then came in the front doors by Tuesday morning. The officers raced to the main police compound on South Broad Avenue, but the water kept rising.
Madison had hauled his 20-foot-long fishing boat into town just in case and parked it near City Hall. But without any tools, officers couldn’t get it off the trailer -- so they roared into the flooded streets with the trailer still attached to the hull. The water was so deep they didn’t hit anything. They picked up everyone left at the police compound and fled for a Marriott hotel on St. Charles Avenue.
They were there for two days.
“Then the manager came by and said he was leaving,” said Capt. R.R. Duryea, commander of the crime lab. “He told us, ‘There is no help coming to you.’ ”
They had no place to go, no police headquarters, no operating radios.
Meanwhile, the Benellis had made their way to the Algiers section -- across the Mississippi River and about seven miles from downtown -- to check on their house. That stretch of the West Bank, as it’s known, fared better than almost any other part of the metropolitan region. But even there, as the Benellis drove in, they saw towering pine trees that had collapsed on houses, crushing roofs.
“I didn’t lose a shingle,” David Benelli said.
On Friday, Becky Benelli discovered that they had running water, a rare commodity in New Orleans these days, even if it is not potable.
“You take stock,” David Benelli said. “You circle the wagons. We’re trying to survive here.”
The Benellis decided to set up camp for their stranded colleagues. But the officers’ squad cars were underwater, and they had no way to get to the Benellis’ house. So they set up a checkpoint in downtown New Orleans. They spent all night stopping every car that went through.
“Every car that was stolen, we stole it back,” Duryea said. “That became our fleet.”
There were 24 officers who needed a place to stay, and even with four bedrooms at the Benellis, they needed more space. So David Benelli called his neighbor John Walters.
“I said, ‘John, I’m going to clean the debris off your lawn and fix your roof. But I’m going to have to confiscate your house,’ ” Benelli said. “He said, ‘Great. Do it.’ ”
The officers live like the Swiss Family Robinson. There are people assigned to take out the trash -- as far away as possible because it will not be picked up soon -- and people assigned to wash the towels once a day.
One officer has been dubbed “Generator Boy”; his only job is to keep the two “appropriated” generators out back running and full of gas.
Officer Chana Pichon -- known to colleagues as “Squeaky” -- is the head chef, sifting twice a day through industrial-size cans of spaghetti sauce and boxes of cereal to devise culinary masterpieces, although the house has little electricity and the oven and the fridge aren’t working.
“The other day she made red beans and rice,” Becky Benelli said. “I still haven’t figured that one out.”
The house is peppered with the officers’ gear and items purloined from their stops along the way, including a portable fan lifted from the Marriott. On its base someone had scrawled: “Room Service Only! Do not remove!”
There are guns lying everywhere -- on the kitchen counter, on the couch.
The following items were on the Benellis’ dining room table Tuesday: Q-Tips, Right Guard, a 12-pack of toilet paper, an open box of Pop-Tarts, a flashlight, three shotgun shells, two porcelain ducks and one dirty pair of socks. Another table serves as the pharmacy: Rolaids, cough medicine, chewing gum, aspirin.
There are occasional treats that people drop off: chocolate, a whole chicken that the officers threw on the grill, a 2003 Robert Mondavi Chardonnay that was nestled in a pile of donated ice Tuesday.
“Mostly, though, they just need a place to lie down and sleep,” David Benelli said.
At times, the housemates bicker like children.
“It’s stupid little stuff: ‘Somebody moved my towel!’ But everybody knows what it’s really about,” Becky Benelli said. “We all have our moments. Everybody in here has taken a moment to just go off by themselves and cry.”
At night, when they fall asleep on the floor, they try to talk about something else. Golf. The New Orleans Saints. Their kids. Inevitably, they start talking about the storm, about what has befallen their city, about their work.
Someone will reminisce about a photograph that has been lost forever. They talk about the latest rumor: Tuesday’s was that the department might establish its headquarters on a cruise ship and dock it on the Mississippi. They swap pointers: If you sleep in a chair, your ankles will be swollen in the morning.
They struggle through tragedies and dilemmas that would have seemed unthinkable two weeks ago.
Pichon’s 14-year-old son, her brother and her 76-year-old father, with whom she shares her two-bedroom house, are missing. She searches for them in her off hours but hasn’t yet been able to find them. By day, she said, she tries to give off an aura of authority to the stragglers left in the city. At night, she feels her heart breaking.
“So what you see on the outside isn’t what’s happening on the inside,” she said. “I’m holding my cool.”
Cpl. Clarence Taplin, a 25-year veteran called “Tap” by his colleagues, has been on rescue boats every day since Katrina left. Four days ago, he fell in.
“I’m still not sure what happened,” he said.
The next day, he started suffering from diarrhea. He was sweating profusely. He didn’t tell anyone for three days. Tuesday morning, another officer took him to the hospital, where he was given two IVs and medication to fight an infection before being sent back to Camp Benelli. He’ll be at work this morning, he said.
The Benellis’ 10-year-old daughter, Dana, is with relatives in Atlanta. Before the storm, Becky Benelli had never spent more than four days apart from Dana. Now, she’s not sure when she’ll see her again. It’ll be long enough that the Benellis have asked their relatives to enroll Dana in fifth grade there.
“We’re just doing the best we can,” Becky said. “And we’re doing better than a lot of people around here.”
“I spent a year in Vietnam,” David Benelli said. “The ordeal that these officers have gone through has been as trying as the time I spent in ‘Nam. This was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. Now, if I could just get them to wipe their feet when they come in the house.”