NEW ORLEANS—They were pulled out Saturday by the hundreds—the sick, the elderly, tourists, babies, even a pregnant woman in labor. Holding on with dwindling supplies and fading hope, they finally left their flooded dwellings and stepped into a rescue boat toward a safer but uncertain future.
The mission began in downtown New Orleans, just a few blocks from the crippled, foul Superdome. There, dozens of rescue teams on boats, accompanied by shotgun-toting cops, rescued people from hotels, apartment buildings, a federal housing project and the sunken bench of a watery bus stop. It was just one of many search-and-recovery operations conducted throughout New Orleans, where scores remain trapped in the flooded devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.
Perry DeGruy, 55, said the Texas Water Strike Team, part of the elite Texas Task Force One search-and-rescue group, delivered the first rescue offer he'd gotten since Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday. Knight Ridder accompanied the water team on its mission Saturday.
"You are the first rescuers I've seen," said DeGruy. "'No boat has been through here since Tuesday."
The teams scrambled into action even after being startled by a shotgun blast, reportedly from four men who fled a flooded street intersection. Authorities said they were too busy rescuing survivors to chase after them.
"If they shoot at me, I'm going to try to get out of here, but I'm shootin' back," said Tim Colvin, an armed Louisiana Parks officer who was helping ferry storm victims out in a huge aluminum boat.
Some of the survivors emerged from their inundated homes sick and weary. DeGruy and his brother are both diabetics and needed insulin. A woman who was eight months pregnant and in labor was pulled out of a downtown building—then placed in a Dodge pickup, given oxygen and rushed to an ambulance. Officials said she was to be taken to the Louis Armstrong International Airport, where a makeshift hospital has been set up.
And 52-year-old Oscar Joshua, weak and stumbling from exposure, told rescue workers from the balcony of the Economy Motor Lodge on Tulane Avenue that he was waiting for the waters to recede so he could drive his truck out of the parking lot. Water came up to the windows of the vehicle.
"Your truck is under water," said Greg Armstrong, a Houston fire captain commanding one of the strike team boats. "You need to come with us." Joshua and a female companion reluctantly left the motel and got in the aluminum boat.
Many of those rescued Saturday said they had been monitoring battery-powered radio reports of the mayhem and filth at the Superdome and city convention center and were desperate to avoid being taken there.
"Things at the Dome is worse," said Rick Brown, who slept on top of a bridge rather than return to the battered stadium. "It's disgusting. That's why people left out of there." He was standing on the submerged bench of a city bus stop when authorities picked him up.
Helicopters buzzed overhead as scores of vessels of various sizes and shapes, brought in from all over Texas and Louisiana, crisscrossed famous, flooded streets looking for survivors. Authorities say they have no time to tend to the occasional floating body.
"If we know people want to get out, and if they have medical issues, that's our top priority," said Billy Parker, the Texas Water Strike Team leader.
The Texas team rescued about 300 people before 3 p.m. and 60 more were on the way with several hours of daylight to go. It has already plucked about 4,000 survivors out of the devastation so far.
Some are still refusing to be rescued, either because they won't leave their pets behind or because they're too afraid of where they might be taken. But many of those holdouts threw in the towel Saturday, citing a lack of food and water, the realization that the water isn't receding, or both.
"I think it was time to leave because we was running out of food anyway," said Raymond Theophile, a veteran of past storms who was pulled from a federal housing project a few blocks from the French Quarter. "I didn't think it would last this long. I thought (the water) would at least go down eventually."
Rescuers said they didn't even know the historic Park Plaza Hotel still had people inside until Saturday—when they pulled 131 stranded storm victims, including tourists and hotel workers, from it. In remarkably good spirits, they said they ate cakes for breakfast and cheese sandwiches for dinner.
A handful of Katrina's survivors just waded out on their own. Walter Woods, 62, and John Robinson, 54, spent the last five days eating beans and crackers at the United Bakery. They stayed up on the tables to keep out of the waist-high water.
"It's deplorable. That's why we left. We ran out of water. We had a little food but then they cut the gas," he said. "We didn't have nothin' but each other."
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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