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Rescuers Urge Residents to Leave New Orleans


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Two of the main levees in New Orleans are plugged and pumps are working. In some areas, the floodwaters are receding. Rescue teams are again setting out on the grim task of searching house to house for survivors and the dead. These rescuers--they are police officers, civilian volunteers, emergency workers and the Coast Guard--have saved thousands of lives. NPR's John Burnett has been covering their efforts and has this story of one young New Orleans policeman.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last Monday morning, it also obliterated the New Orleans Police Department. District stations and police cars were underwater. Radio communication went dead. A 25-year-old rookie cop named Brian French, badge number 1606, got up on Tuesday and began to freelance.

(Soundbite of airboat)

Officer BRIAN FRENCH (New Orleans Police Department): I was a police officer. I did what I could do to save lives. Later on, I met up with the guys or we started, you know, figuring out what we were going to do, but first couple days, it was just officers saving other people's lives. There was no supervision, nothing.

BURNETT: French is still in a search-and-rescue phase, though there are fewer and fewer storm survivors to pluck from inundated houses.

(Soundbite of airboat)

Off. FRENCH: The ones that called in for help are pretty much dead. A lot of these people are medical people, like a lot of diabetic people. Anybody with a medical problem that called in, was checked, and they've been dead.

BURNETT: All week, French has teamed up with his old high-school pal Dan Hannigan(ph), a 27-year-old US immigration agent who raced down from Toledo, Ohio, to help out with the rescues. Because of snipers, the two young law enforcement officers take no chances. Between them they carried two Glock .40 caliber and two 9-millimeter pistols and an AR-15 assault rifle. They're both muscular. They wear dark glasses and have short-cropped hair. Their conveyance is an airboat captained by a man in a Sun 'n' Fun(ph) T-shirt named Jim Osborne(ph) who towed it from Ft. Pierce, Florida.

Mr. JIM OSBORNE (Volunteer Rescuer): I'm a letter carrier at the Postal Service, and I will be AWOL as of tomorrow. And they told me I couldn't go. And I'm the only one with an airboat and 400 people, and I said, `Guess what? I'm going.'

(Soundbite of airboat)

BURNETT: The trio is conducting house-to-house searches in French's normal patrol beat, the Fifth District, an area east of the French Quarter that was savaged by the storm.

Unidentified Man #1: Where you-all be at?

Off. FRENCH: Take a left and just go straight down Elysian Fields until we get to...

BURNETT: Elysian Fields, paradise of the gods of Greek mythology. Today, Elysian Fields Boulevard is a gateway into the watery hell of New Orleans' Ninth Ward.

Off. FRENCH: As you can tell, the whole district's been lost. There's nothing left of this district.

BURNETT: Rescuers use a color-coded system spray-painted on walls of houses--red if the occupants are dead or rescued, green if they're empty or still inside and don't want to leave.

Off. FRENCH: ...should be like two more streets, then we'll take a right.

(Soundbite of airboat)

BURNETT: The airboat turns south on to Franklin Street and motors past DJ's Fashions, the Paradise Lounge, Total barber shop and Jazz It Up car wash. These small, funky, family-owned businesses that were the lifeblood of the neighborhood are all ruined. The boat wake sloshes on to window sills.

(Soundbite of airboat)

Off. FRENCH: Take a right; it's too shallow.

BURNETT: Pets are a big problem. On every block, hungry dogs prowl front porches of flooded shotgun houses like caged lions. They search our boat for a familiar face. Others have joined packs that run along grassy medians, finishing off meals ready to eat. Officials speculate how much longer before the feral strays will have to be shot.

Eight days after the storm, the floodwater has become an ocean of debris, the refuse of middle-class lives bobbing in the dark current--refrigerators, sofa cushions, whiskey bottles, a child's slide, a hot tub. Strange metal platforms protrude above the water--they're the roofs of cars and trucks. Next to each one, a stream of gasoline trickles to the surface.

(Soundbite of airboat)

Off. FRENCH: Here's another hazard, the low wires. You got to be careful.

BURNETT: We come upon the body of a large black man in a T-shirt, lying face down on the roof of a small sedan as though embracing it. His corpse has swollen prodigiously in the torpid heat. It's the fifth body they've spotted in two hours. Officer French radios the dispatcher. Body recovery teams are supposed to be out later this week.

(Soundbite of airboat)

Off. FRENCH: (on radio) Seventeen-twenty-two Franklin Avenue, 1722 Franklin Avenue, 329 on top of a vehicle.

Unidentified Woman: (On radio) Ten-four, one body.

Off. FRENCH: (On radio) Ten-four.

Unconfirmed. It's a death, but we don't know--I mean, we know that--the nature of the cause, but we don't know. It's just unclassified death.

BURNETT: After marking the dead, we move on to look for the living. There was a report of storm survivors who needed rescuing at 1415 Franklin Street. It's a red and yellow house with a sign that says, `Kids of Excellence 24-Hour Day Care, Teaching Our Future Leaders.' Osborne kills the big Cadillac engine that powers the airboat's prop so they can hear if a feeble voice calls from within.

Off. FRENCH: Hello! Police!

BURNETT: The day-care center is empty. God willing, another rescue boat picked up the owner. Dan Hannigan, the immigration agent, says they're still finding people who want to be rescued.

(Soundbite of airboat)

Mr. DAN HANNIGAN (Volunteer Rescuer): Yesterday, we had a boat rescue, a family of seven. We heard the pounding on the windows, so we had to shatter through the door, kick the door in. They had seven kids and a diabetic paraplegic who we had to carry out. He was about 350 pounds.

BURNETT: We push forward in the stinking black water, every day more contaminated with oozing sewage and decomposing flesh. Rescuers are horrified that some people, in fact, hundreds and hundreds of them, refuse to leave their homes that are surrounded by this toxic brew.

The boat pulls onto St. Roch Street, and the rescuers spot three men on the second-story balcony of a stucco house. They smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and watch the lawmen warily. The rescuers on our boat implore the men to evacuate.

Off. FRENCH: If you don't get treated from being in the water, you will die. You will die, sir.

BURNETT: The soup bowl that is New Orleans is now filled with biohazard guaranteed to cause skin infections or gastrointestinal problems, but the three men on the balcony are unmoved.

Unidentified Man #2: ...(Unintelligible) by my sister in Atlanta. That's what I'm hoping.

Off. FRENCH: The water might be here for 80 more days. They're going to call off rescues in the next day or two, I promise you.

Unidentified Man #3: ...(Unintelligible) the water ain't going down...

Off. FRENCH: There's absolutely no point. Really, there's not. It's going to be demolished anyway, so you're going to be leaving in about three months. They're going to bulldoze all of these neighborhoods because they're all wood structures. They will be destroyed.

BURNETT: Is there any significance to you staying there?

Mr. HANNIGAN: Why are y'all staying? Why?

Unidentified Man #4: Waiting to hear from Mom.

Off. FRENCH: Mom? Mom ain't on an airboat. She ain't coming here.

BURNETT: The men aren't budging, so the airboat moves on. French says this neighborhood is rife with drug dealing and shootings. He speculates the men have something to hide. His buddy, Dan Hannigan, shakes his head incredulously.

(Soundbite of airboat)

Mr. HANNIGAN: ...like I said before, the only thing you can do now is pray for the ones that decided to stay. They have their own reasons and that's about it.

BURNETT: It's getting late. Nobody wants to be on the water by nightfall. The airboat skims across the water, down Elysian Fields and back to the ramp beside Interstate 10. While the postman's son is pulling the boat on to its trailer, Officer French rests his hand on his weapon and scans the surrounding buildings. Why, he's asked, did his department implode when the storm hit? There's been bitter criticism that a third of the New Orleans police force of 1,600 turned their badges in and walked off the job in the aftermath of the storm.

Off. FRENCH: There were a lot of them, but you've got to remember these officers that turned in their badges, a lot of them lost everything. Their families said flat out, `I'm not coming back. I cannot go through this.' And the officers--I mean, it was tremendous stress. I mean, as you heard, two officers took their own lives. They shot themselves. It's very devastating, and I don't know the circumstances behind it. It's just the stress. I've never seen anything like it. I mean, I could compare it to a living hell. I mean, the first couple days were a living hell. Everybody was dying. I mean, there were bodies lined up in the water, bodies lined up on the high rise. I mean, it was just complete hell. I wouldn't and couldn't go through this again, you know, but I stuck it out just because I felt I had to be there for my fellow officers and for the city. It's what I took an oath to do, so...

BURNETT: Officer Brian French says he's moving his wife and daughters out of New Orleans to a suburb on higher ground. The city is just too flood-prone, he says. But he doesn't plan on quitting the force. He likes being a New Orleans cop. He says he became a police officer because of the challenge of law enforcement. He just never expected anything quite like this.

John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

MONTAGNE: To find complete coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, you can go to npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.