Week one

Josh FloodThe day after the storm, Josh Flood got a call from an aunt. His parents were still at the hospital, but they were alive. Then, on Wednesday night, he finally got through to them. The first floor of the hospital had flooded, they told him. There was no electricity and many of the generators were under water. The most critical patients and pregnant women near labor were evacuated before Katrina hit, but some seven hundred patients remained. The hospital was surrounded by seven feet of water, so evacuations were being done by helicopter. They hadn't heard anything about their home or their two dogs--a Golden Retriever and Yellow Labrador, whom they'd had to leave behind when they reported for work before the hurricane hit.

It was good to hear his parents' voice, but the news hit Josh hard. His parents were finally rescued on Thursday. They were airlifted to Slidell, a town severely slammed by Katrina's twenty-foot storm surge. From there, they eventually made their way to Chicago to stay with family.

Lake Pontchartrain filled James Irwin's basement on the lake's north shore with several feet of water, but the rest of his house escaped flood damage. He and Stephanie spent the first few days after the hurricane ripping ruined flooring and walls out of the basement and on Thursday, Stephanie and the couple's sons drove to Houma, Louisiana, to stay with family. James headed for Baton Rouge to find office space for his law firm. Many of his coworkers had lost everything in the hurricane and floods. They couldn't afford to lose their jobs, too. He and his partners opened a relief fund folks could tap into to relocate to Baton Rouge. Several of the firm's larger clients contributed as well. One even asked the firm to raise their legal fees.

Renee Peck was in shock. New Orleans had not "dodged the bullet," as she had told her daughter. The city was hit at close range. Renee and Stewart decided to take Katherine to Houston, where Renee's mother had a home. There, they would have electricity, cable television, and an Internet connection. They called their insurance company and registered with FEMA. Renee signed Katherine up for school in Houston and Stewart rented office space for his firm. Renee made contact with her coworkers at the Times-Picayune. She resumed work in Houston, writing stories about what readers should do when they returned to their flooded homes, whom to call about removing moldy walls, and where to get a blue tarp to cover damaged roofs. It was something resembling normalcy. Almost.

"It was never normal, not really," Renee says. "After all, how normal is it to pore over satellite images of a drowning city?" That's how she and Stewart spent an afternoon one day after the hurricane, hoping to find their home. They enlarged the images, spotted the break in the 17th Street Canal levee, followed a line to a park across the street from their house, finally spotting their home in Lakeview. "It was horrific," Renee recalls. "Everything was under water. Houses up and down the street. The park. The streets. There was water everywhere. Those satellite maps showed us just how extensive the damage was. It wasn't just a street. It was a city."

It quickly became clear that the refugees who'd fled Louisiana wouldn't be going home anytime soon. Within a few weeks, every state in the country had taken in people displaced by Katrina. The need for assistance was unprecedented. Shelby Van Voris-Schoenborn '99, a graduate student in public health at Armstrong Atlantic State University, heard a plea from the Red Cross for volunteers to help with relief efforts in Savannah, Georgia, where she'd settled two years before with her husband, who was stationed at an Army base nearby. Earlier in the year, he had been deployed to Iraq.

Shelby's job was to help refugees find homes, jobs, medical care, and anything else they needed. The first family she helped had owned a restaurant in New Orleans. They had stayed through the hurricane, but left three days later when they heard about widespread looting. While they were leaving New Orleans, someone shot at their car. The bullet blew out their rear window, missing their daughter by inches. All their money was in a small bank in New Orleans that closed when Katrina hit and had not reopened. Their daughter was sick. The woman's elderly mother was somewhere in New Orleans, but they couldn't find her. The family had dysentery. Shelby found them a place to live and helped them find jobs.

Hundreds of refugees with stories similar to that first family's came through the Red Cross in Savannah in September. It was rewarding to help them, but gut-wrenching to hear about their ordeals. "I cried a lot," she recalls. "How could I not?"

A few days after the hurricane, local and state officials in New Orleans sent out a desperate plea for doctors, nurses, and people with boats. Dr. David Reed '80 heard the call and knew he had to go. An associate professor of emergency medicine at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, Reed had previously worked as a search-and-rescue physician in Nevada. He'd been a paramedic at the fire department in Gambier as a student and later with teams in Mount Vernon and Kentucky. Five days after the storm, Reed boarded a plane to Baton Rouge.

He arrived at a makeshift command post to find more than a hundred medical volunteers awaiting orders. At 5:00 a.m. on Sunday, he received word that he would join a group of doctors and paramedics on a search-and-rescue mission in New Orleans. They formed a caravan of ambulances and trailers pulling boats, and headed toward the city. New Orleans was in chaos. The military had not arrived in force and it was unclear just who was in charge. The volunteers weren't sure where they should go. "We just knew there was a whole city of people who needed some help," Reed says. "So we went."

They drove past the Superdome on I-10, stopping where the road disappeared beneath the flood waters. By 8:00 a.m., they were motoring into the city in five boats, each holding a physician, a few paramedics, and a heavily armed guard.

They rescued a dozen or so people that morning, but most folks they came across wanted to stay, fearful of losing to looters what belongings the storm hadn't already taken. They knocked down the door of a ninety-year-old deaf woman who was just sitting on her bed, waiting for things to return to normal. She didn't want to leave. "Here I am, a triage guy, trying to decide what to do," Reed says. "Do I pull her out and take her to a shelter where she'd probably never see her home again? Or do I leave her there where she wants to be?"

An evacuation would mean a swinging ride in a basket as she was pulled into a helicopter--enough, perhaps, to do the woman in. Reed's team decided to leave her, with promises from her neighbors that they would keep an eye on her.

After nine hours on the water, he and his partners ferried back to I-10, caught a military helicopter to the New Orleans airport, and hitched a ride back to Baton Rouge. He spent the next two days waiting for another mission. The rescue efforts were poorly organized that soon after the hurricane. Reed wanted to help, but he was unable to do what he came to do. He returned to New York a few days later. "I'm glad I went, but I wish I could have done more."

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