Things winding down and boats being pulled from the water, we loaded Sam and Gigi into Morgan’s boat. We partnered with another crew and left to give the Governor’s Office a brief tour. We sped north on Reed Boulevard, the main “canal” providing access to the area. The water level went quickly to six feet, partially covering homes, schools and businesses. The Lake Plaza Shopping Mall eerily sat like an island in the new lake that was a parking lot a few days before. Crossing under Interstate 10, the water level dropped, then rose again quickly on the north side. We passed a partially submerged MacDonald’s and a strip mall, then glided into deeper water as we moved toward Lake Pontchartrain.
Some houses remained submerged below their rooflines. We passed a white rabbit and a domesticated duck floating on debris, survivors still close to their cages. A block before the levee, the water level was too shallow for us to continue. From an officer in the other boat, we determined that a nursing home on Haynes Boulevard, that our nurse friend had hoped to check, was actually miles away and inaccessible from our location. We then accompanied the other boat to a residential area its NOPD passenger had asked to check.
Heading east, we entered an area of much more expensive homes than those in the areas we had been working. Their value did nothing to protect them from Katrina’s wrath. We motored through the quiet suburban streets through an area that appeared to be a central lake around which many of the homes had been built. The expanded lake lacked visible banks and now consumed gazebos, docks and boat sheds. Flocks of ducks flew and set as we passed. At one point, I imagined Morgan reaching for his shotgun thinking of duck gumbo.
We idled around the lake while Sam and I discussed what had happened with the storm. He referred me to a book named “Rising Tide” written years before. It analyzed the 1927 flood, the reaction to it and the political battles that ultimately shaped the Flood Prevention Plan and course of action followed by government since then. In the wake of Katrina, he told me that the book was climbing the best-seller list again.
Winding down, ready to go home, and the adrenaline flow cut off, fatigue began to set in. It was time to go home. No doubt, those waiting for us at the dock felt more strongly about that than we did. We began to head back. We passed SUV’s and two story brick homes, down the tree lined boulevard, past the assisted living high rise and back to Reed Boulevard. We turned south to begin the last leg of the journey. We passed Memorial Hospital and, almost as an afterthought, I remembered the preacher with his hospice patients.
We had not had any word since someone had made contact with him earlier that day. The report then was that two of the patients were hanging on and he was not leaving them. Presumably, as hospice patients, it made better sense to let them pass in peace in their beds rather than forcing a “rescue” upon them. The preacher’s commitment to them, to his job and to his conscience would ensure that they were treated with the best attention and dignity that could be provided under these circumstances.
Morgan drew the motor to an idle and circled the hospice. Finally, after we passed around three sides of the building without obtaining a response, a man emerged on the second floor roof of a wing of the 10+-story building. We threw him an MRE. He held up his hand, thanked us, and informed us that he did not need food. He offered us gasoline, as he had to our comrades a few days before. He reported that there were still two patients alive. Appearing almost apologetic, he told us that one patient had passed on and he needed to move her from the room she occupied with one of the remaining living patients.
There was no hesitation from the R & R guys. Within minutes, the boats were docked near the building. We climbed onto and then crossed the long metal shed covering the submerged cars in the parking lot, to climb onto the second floor roof to join the preacher. A strong smell of decaying flesh hit us in the face almost immediately. Our imaginations created vivid images of what we might find inside the hospice. Upon entering, we were met with only a mild odor, similar to what might be encountered in a functioning nursing home. Later, we were to discover that the stench on the roof came from the carcasses of two giant Rotweiller dogs that had unsuccessfully ridden out the storm under the building’s large air conditioner condensing unit.
After entering the main building, we noticed a room to the left in which two beds were positioned with their feet perpendicular to each other. On one wall to the left was an area that the preacher had apparently used during the six days since the storm, to sit and read or listen to news reports on his portable radio. A scented candle burned. In one bed was an elderly lady, occasionally making barely audible and unintelligible sounds. We began to refer to the preacher, whose name was Greg, as Chaplain. He let us know that this lady continued to refuse any kind of sustenance or medication, but she continued to hang on.
Occasionally, the elderly lady’s eyes opened slightly revealing bright crystals that certainly glowed inside the face of a beautiful spirit in her youth. On her back, she held the bedrail with one hand. I thought of my mother and my godmother, small, beautiful women who had lived into their 80’s. Both now gone, they each had beautiful eyes and boundless spirits that embodied everything that is New Orleans.
Next to the other bed, Chaplain Greg stood with the last piece of white medical tape he used to secure a clean white plastic cover over the patient who had recently passed on. After all of this time, under unimaginable conditions, Greg still maintained an obvious respect for this lady’s dignity. He asked that we move her to an occupied room, but informed us that the bed on which she rested could not fit through the door.
My mind began to consider options and the problems presented by each. As I stumbled mentally considering each, the best and only solution came simply and clearly out of the mouth of one of the R & R guys, problem solvers who spend their days creating solutions.
“We’ll move only the mattress and bend its side as we move her undisturbed through the doors”.
The task proved to be only mildly awkward, as her frail frame added little weight to the mattress. She was gently moved to an unoccupied room where the mattress and its occupant were placed onto a bed. She was left to rest in peace.
Outside of the room, we entered a typical hallway you might see in any small hospital. All but one of the doors were closed and each had a clean white sheet stuffed underneath. The door casings were sealed to the door with white plastic tape, as was the sheet to the bottom of the door. I counted eight doors in that section of hallway. The chaplain slowly closed the door, placed a sheet at its base and began to seal off this one in the same fashion as the others.
In the room next to the door being sealed by the Chaplain was the second patient. We were told she was in a great deal of pain, suffering the final stages of cancer. The nurse asked the location of IV equipment and liquid morphine to provide her some relief. Greg said he knew of none, and that he had never seen any of the patients given IV’s. He qualified this with the comment that he was “only the chaplain”, presumably meaning he had limited knowledge of medicine and medical treatment. He did say that he had managed to periodically administer morphine orally to her to alleviate her pain, but that he had only one pill left.
Gigi checked out available medications, and did what she could to comfort the two ladies. Presumably, we would exit shortly to return home, leaving Chaplain Greg to his task. My fatigue had obviously blinded me by this time, to some things that should have been obvious to me. The stark realities confronted in the last few days had apparently hardened my otherwise overly empathetic nature. I was ready to go and knew that Boss-man Ronny and his crew at the highway knew nothing about what we were doing. I was sure they were ready to go as well.
The nurse noticed that Greg was coughing and was physically and emotionally drained. Despite his efforts to seal off the rooms, he could not protect himself from the potential disease he would come into contact with among the now deceased former patients. He had to go, and the only way to get him to go was to rescue his last two patients.
Focus on the ladies created a dilemma. Do we “rescue” two ladies who have chosen hospice care because they want to die peacefully? To do so would require them being carried into the bright sunlight, something they certainly had not encountered in many weeks, if not months. Then they would somehow need to be lowered into a small, metal fishing boat and carried to the side of a highway with only hope of transport being provided. Their ultimate destination might be a crowded makeshift medical care facility across town at the airport or one arbitrarily chosen by whoever might be driving the land transportation. Also, Greg had professed for a week his intention not to leave. He wished to remain with the ladies to provide whatever attention, care and solace he could while they remained on this earth.
Focus on Greg and a potential long life ahead of him removed the dilemma. His health would be endangered if he stayed and appropriate arrangements could be made for proper removal and care of the ladies.
The wheels were in motion. Assured that the patients would be treated properly, Chaplain Greg was told to pack his things. Ronny was informed of the situation by walkie-talkie. Our friends from NOPD stood by on the roof outside, and began attempts to summon helicopter transport. Within 20 minutes, a medi-vac helicopter hovered overhead and lowered one of its crew onto the roof. Quickly, it was determined that air rescue would not be possible. The roof was too small to land the chopper and it could accommodate only ambulatory patients. If we could bring the patients by boat to the interstate overpass, air transport might be arranged---“might”.
Contact with Ronny back at the highway confirmed the availability of ground transport. He had made arrangements with a passing Navy vehicle connected with a medical ship docked in the Mississippi River. Always prepared, Ronny sent one of the larger flat bottom boats along with three men and two metal, mesh “baskets” designed for transporting injured oilfield workers. Awaiting their arrival, we set about the task of preparing the ladies for the most comfort we could on their impending journey.
The bottoms of the metal stretchers were lined with pads to try to avoid direct contact of the ladies’ frail bodies with the rigid mesh carriers. The large construction workers laid each lady gently into position. Each was covered with a clean white sheet and secured by stretching disposable “ace” bandages repeatedly across the top of the carriers over the sheets. Before being carried into the bright sunlight, their eyes were covered with a small pillowcase after we assured them that the purpose was to protect their eyes on the “little boat ride” they were about to take. At the edge of the roof, the head of the carrier was secured with rope. Maintaining as much of a horizontal position as possible, the baskets were lowered one at a time down to four men in the boat a floor below. The baskets were placed gently on the deck of the boat, one on each side of the center console. A perfect fit.
The boat motored away to unload the fragile cargo along with the complete medical file of each lady. The boat also carried the complete medical files of the various deceased patients who remained at the facility. Sam’s intention was to see that family members were contacted in hopes that they would be consoled with the knowledge that their loved ones had not been deserted. In no more than two or three minutes, they would be at the highway and placed in the Navy transport vehicle.
Out of the door and onto the roof came Chaplain Greg, dressed and carrying his bag. For the first time, he expressed how elated he was to see our boats. Clearly, he was thankful that a solution to his situation had been found. He had family in Slidell he needed to contact. With the twin spans of I-10 crossing over the lake destroyed by the storm, he intended to walk across the Highway 11 Bridge to Slidell. Instead, Sam offered him a ride out of the City, to assist him in reaching his destination and to see that he was not caught up in the evacuation of others being dispersed to all parts of the country.
In the shallow water near the highway, the boat could not offload directly onto dry ground. To allow Chaplain Greg the respect he deserved, a ladder was found and a makeshift gangplank fashioned to let him exit the boat without having to wade in the dank, nasty waters. Our goodbyes said, we cleaned up with bottled water, and discarded shoes and shirts hoping to shed the smells, tastes and germs of the day.
The decision was made to return to our Canal Street campsite before returning home. Some media people and the young lady who had worked side by side with us after joining our force the day before, would be dropped downtown to retrieve their vehicles.
A few media crews and rescue and recovery workers with supplies and communications replaced the crowds of displaced residents, which had filled the elevated highway just three days before. A large fire department from a few states away had set up a tented headquarters on one shoulder of the road. The sky was filled with helicopters. The City appeared otherwise empty. “Dewatering” of the cluttered, ravaged City was projected to take 36-80 days. Utility service and water might not be available for a month or more.
We returned to downtown past the Convention Center. A few people wandered amidst the huge mounds of smelly debris and chairs on the sidewalks and in the streets. The foot of Canal Street and the Harrah’s headquarters was busy with fresh workers and their shiny emergency vehicles from generous communities all over the country. The trolley tracks were vacant and our rag-tag bunch pulled into our reserved spots.
We considered trying to put together a group photo, but opted instead to hit the road. Ronny declared to everyone that he had decided now to get rid of his New Orleans “condominium” to move back home. As many as could, shook hands with Capt. Bayard, each thanking the other with obvious respect. We left in a proud line, the R & R logo now recognizable to many law enforcement officers and our fellow volunteers.
On the west bank of the river, the traffic flow had increased. Approaching Boutte, and the entrance to the I-310 leg that would return us to our I-10 route home, some traffic lights were now working. Our group got splintered and used three separate return routes home. We each spent the Labor Day holiday catching up with family and friends and watching unending news reports from the scene we had just left. Back home, back to reality, our familiar surroundings provided us with comfort, but we realized we were each changed by our experience. The reality to which we had returned would be forever different.
I called and thanked Ronny Lovett for making something possible for me that would not have happened without his generosity and compassion. He had certainly impacted thousands of lives because of it. He dismissed it as simply the right thing to do and discussed returning if other help could be provided. With no regrets, our bodies and minds began to recuperate and to adjust to our new reality. We did not know what the future would hold for the City of New Orleans or its residents. We were gratified that we had been able to be a small part of helping the city right itself so it could begin its long road to recovery as a new, New Orleans with its old heart and soul intact.