Digging In, Getting Out, Surviving
NEW ORLEANS--In the flooded wreck of her city, cut off from water, electricity, and her dialysis treatments, Violet Jackson simply wasn't ready to leave. Her 79-year-old husband had died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and was still slumped over in his easy chair in their white shotgun shack on the edge of the Garden District.
When her neighbor, Henry McEnery, a pastor, visited her the next day, she was sick and disoriented, having missed several days of treatment. But she simply couldn't abandon her husband, she said. McEnery offered to hold a makeshift funeral service for him. "I even happened to have a bunch of flowers," he says. So he wrapped the body in blankets and plastic bags and held a brief, 15-minute service in her house. "Right after, she finally smiled, even as she was crying," McEnery says. "I said, 'Now, can we go to the hospital?' "
Jackson agreed. A week later, though, her husband's body was still out on the front porch, wrapped in a light blue blanket under a hand-lettered yellow sign: "Alcede Jackson. Rest in peace."
With much of New Orleans still accessible only by water, crews launched rescue boats from highway off-ramps and even from Napoleon Avenue, part of the Mardi Gras parade route. Under live oaks strewn with Mardi Gras beads, crews from as far away as Kentucky took boats deep into the city. To Oliver Thomas, the New Orleans City Council president, the city is "Ground Below Zero."
"We got Tabasco." Some of those rescued were in bad shape. Matthew Minson, a medical specialist from Texas, helped treat a woman who had been floating on a cushion in her flooded house for five days. Suffering from severe exposure and dehydration, he figured she couldn't last much longer. "We took a rowboat and jury-rigged it to get an IV in," he says. A helicopter whisked her away.
Amazingly, thousands of people remain holed up in their island homes. For many, it's all they have. Ray Menard was born in New Orleans in 1928. "I've got lots of manuscripts and drawings," he says. "Where does it go?"
Others are just plain stubborn. In one poor neighborhood, a rescue boat piloted by volunteer Howard Johnston pulled up alongside a house with two men relaxing on their front porch. Their home, perched on stilts, largely escaped water damage. But they were surrounded by blocks and blocks of deep water. Still, they politely rebuffed Johnston's repeated attempts to get them to leave, insisting they have enough food for several weeks. "We can stretch it," one said. "We got Tabasco. We're gonna be OK."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's order of a mandatory evacuation was backed up by vague but unmistakable threats of force, and the prospect of people being expelled at gunpoint is unnerving both locals and rescue workers. "The people have been through hell," says Steve Marshall, who works with We Care, a Christian relief organization. "The last thing they need to see is a gun in their face telling them to leave."