Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2005-6

 

SURVIVOR

DENNIS DOLBEAR

Illustrations by CHARLIE WILLIAMS

[ continued from previous page ]

III. Ordeal by Heat

Up in the attic, without power, it was dark as the lowest pit of hell and almost as hot. But something else it was: dry, and for that we were grateful. As the afternoon wore on - this was about six - I heard a sound I first greeted as the sweetest in the world: a chopper's whirlybird whupwhupwhup ... passing near overhead. Wonderful! We'd be saved! I went outside again, leaving my mother in the attic, making my way through the up-upper chest high water in the house, and made it outside to the ladder. As choppers went by, I waved, but none stopped, although one - at the intersection of the next street, New Castle, seemed to hover for a few minutes. Hopeful sign - surely they'd be back. As night fell - and I could for once, see the stars above the darkened city - I was hopeful. Tomorrow, tomorrow, we'd be airlifted out of this place - or, as the water would surely fall further as they turned on the pumps, walk out.

I climbed into the stifling attic, crawled over to a vacant space on the boards, and fell into a blessed sleep from sheer exhaustion.

 

IV. Day of Despair

I awoke - who knows how many hours later, time, as we usually reckon it having ceased to exist - with a ray of light coming through the housing of the attic exhaust fan. I dragged myself over to the stairwell opening and gazed down, hoping that there would be only a small amount of water left.

I was wrong, The water hadn't fallen an inch - as verified by the scumline forming on my wallpaper - from last night. That was a very bad sign, for it meant that the pumps were not in operation, and that the drop in the water level from yesterday was simply due to the wind's abatement.

My first task was to get us some water and if possible, food. Food was secondary, I knew you could last for days without it, but water - clean water, there was too much of the other kind - was a different matter. Fortunately, I located a floating foam ice chest with a bag of ice inside and - joy - some frozen fruit salad I had the idea of taking out the night before. We had water, and food. I got it up the stairs to my mother and proceeded to work my way to the front door...

I moved through the shifting maze of our furniture - the giant TV that was my mother's main entertainment floating tube down like a colossal iceberg - pushing aside stereos, couches, credenzas and who knows what else, moving through scummy, foul water and a house with a subtle, but growing fetid odor, and emerged -

- into a scene of, well, beauty.

The sheet of water stretched out over the neighborhood and was utterly still, undisturbed by even a ripple from the breeze, which was nonexistent. The beautiful southern sun, a fountain of gold, poured through the remaining trees, and the entire surface of the water, like a mirror, reflected the trees, and the sun, and the sky, and the clouds, and the houses....

...the houses? Right, which brought me around - this was the drowned world, eerily quiet as I'd never heard my neighborhood before, without even the distant whoosh of the I-10. Nothing. It was the bizarre, and beautiful, and sinister, calm after the storm...

I felt utterly alone, but I called: "ANYBODY OUT THERE?!" And, thank God, got answers -"Yeah, over here!" "Where?" "Here! I can see you...we're over on Barchester Street!" And another party answered from the house on New Castle that the helicopter had hovered over yesterday. We all called out, confirmed how many - two on Barchester, two on Coventry (us) five on New Castle - and all swore that if rescued, they'd make sure the rescuers knew about us too. It made me feel better they'd have to get somebody now, all we had to do was wait.

And wait, and wait, and yell and wave towels and anything else at the numerous passing helicopters. I knew why so many passed overhead; our house isn't far from the Lake Front airport, and that is the location of the Louisiana Air National Guard's base - which is where the copters would refuel.

But surely someone would come for us, so, I spent the day on the ladder, trying to attract attention, or moving through the increasingly foul water either to check on my mother - she was holding up fairly well, considering - and scouting as much of the neighborhood as I could. We were surely almost alone, and every house had damage - doors and windows blown in, all flooded, everything ruined.

And so the day progressed, without knowledge of actual time, until - glory be! A helicopter was hovering over New Castle ! Were they - YES! - they were hovering to pickup the family there! We'd soon be saved! Thank God. I called to my mother that this was it, be ready to move when I called to her.

The rescue was fascinating to watch, as the helicopter hovered and circled and hoisted the New Castle family up, and when they were finished, they...

... roared off and left us. Left us in a silence and a heat and a stench that was in every way more oppressive than before.

.But - oh, joy - they returned about an hour later, surely, they were returning to...

... no. They picked up a family a few streets down. And later, another, And then another, And each time they would circle, and I'd wave and yell and curse and nothing, nothing would happen. And this went on until dark

If we thought it was hot on Monday night, Tuesday night was almost unbearable, because Katrina had at least cooled things off for Monday. Tuesday - the attic was like spending the night in a sauna, bathed in your own sweat, and in the utter darkness, so profound it was equivalent to utter blindness. My mother was still game, still holding up with the defiant courage that has been the hallmark of her life, but there is only so much the willing, but aged and somewhat sick, flesh and spirit can do. And she was reaching that limit rapidly, I could see that. I finally drifted off to sleep, without rest, after deciding what we would try on the morrow.

 

IV. Swim for your life

We had to escape this watery hell, this prison where you could either be in the stifling attic, and risk heat prostration, or in the water, which was quite cold, and in which, if you spent most of the day, you would surely risk hypothermia, if not much worse - the water, stagnant, was becoming the toxic soup that was always feared, as the rotting vegetation mixed with an array of chemicals from houses, boats, etc, to float on the top of the murky green water, I quickly acquired a coating of motor oil when I swam through a slick floating in my hallway.

We had to make a run for it, because if we waited, and help did not come today, I feared my mother would be too weak to escape on Thursday. Today had to be the day. We came from our sweat box refuge into a morning of dazzling and eerie beauty like before. I left my mother to stand on the ladder and try to attract the attention of the helicopters - fat chance - while I scouted out a plan of escape.

It was daunting. My street was tough enough, but when I rounded the corner and saw the broad watery expanse of what was New Castle Drive stretching on for blocks, and blocks, I realized that it was going to be tough enough on me - and my mother, even clinging to a board, definitely would not make it. But there had to be something. And as I was going, my eye caught sight of a thing that was to have some importance and so - but, as my mind is wont, it filed it away for future reference.

I tried almost anything I could to get my mother something that she could float on which I could tow her to safety. And nothing worked. One table merely sank, a door floating well enough on its own, sank under even my mother's almost-negligible weight. Nothing. At that point, tired, I told my mother to keep an eye out, and went over to visit the boys on Barchester. I moved through the deep water of the street itself with a foam float in front of me, keeping my face out of the dangerous water, trying to paddle with one arm.

My Barchester neighbor was on his roof, with a large white flag he'd improvised from a sheet and a long broom handle. I greeted him. "Any luck?"

"Nah. They keep passing by."

"Same here...and my mother's sick, I'm getting desperate. "

"Well, we tried to launch my neighbor's boat," he commented sourly, gesturing at a hull barely visible beneath the murk. "Sank right off ... must've had a hole in it somewhere."

At that point, the bit of information I referred to earlier - filed away in the subconscious - kicked in.

"I know where there's another boat," I said.

My neighbor looked me right in the eye. "Lead us to it."

And so we started off, me leading on my foam board , my neighbor's brother following in a life jacket, and my neighbor paddling using some giant foam cylinder as support. We didn't have too far to go - just around the corner, and there we found out whatever neighbor owned the boat, he'd neglected to lock the boat itself. So we proceeded to borrow the watercraft, with the aid of one of the brother's clasp knife. He, by the way, is an ex-Marine. As he pointed out to me (not sarcastically, but....) all this wasn't such a big thing when you train in the Carolina swamps.

After a bit we had a boat, but not motor power - the big Evenrude was key-locked. No matter though - we could pole it through the streets, Venetian-style. (I made a point of singing "O Sole Mio".)

Even if the boat was a problem - it took considerable force to move such a heavy craft - one thing was important: two life jackets, one of which I fastened on my mother's back. It's hard to describe, but the act gave me great relief, since it greatly decreased her risk of drowning. And soon enough, the Barchester neighbors had retrieved some of their goods, and came poling the boat up our street. The Marine brought the craft almost to the ladder, we transferred my mother to the boat ("Hold tight, mama, I've got you", the Marine said) and the next thing we were poling/pushing /towing the boat through the water, down New Castle towards the lake and higher ground.

And it was while we were paused, transferring boats and passengers, that one of those random incidents that mean so much occurred: at that point, since it was the intersection of two large streets, we had an unobstructed view to the south. And while we were working, the ex-marine suddenly shouted "Look there!" and pointed directly to the south: a large jet with distinctive blue and white markings was flying low over the city. "That's Air Force One!"

Thank God. George Bush, I cursed you before, but now I bless you. The Federal cavalry is here and things will soon be ok.

And then I realized....

The main airport is to the west of us, and the jet is proceeding east. He's not coming here. The sonof a bitch is just flying by....

...and now, George Bush, I curse you again, and if I had known, at the time, that it took a disaster of this magnitude to get you to cut short your vacation by even one day, and while I and my mother, and thousands of my fellow Orleanians were sweating, thirsting, starving, dying, up in our attics, you were playing guitar-- a fiddle would have been more appropriate - on you ranch, I'd have cursed you worse than ever, you loathsome excuse …

....pardon. But to paraphrase that great American, Micheal Corleone, this isn't business. It's personal.

As I pushed, I saw something curious in the water, and pulled it out - a pool cue, and expensive, if I am any judge - and threw it in the boat. Not much, but when your total possessions consist of a pair of eyeglasses, a pair of boxer briefs, a scrub shirt, and a cheap pair of Wal-Mart shoes, the acquisition of that pool cue probably tripled my net worth, maybe.

My mother sat in the bow, impassive, erect, like a Czarina going into exile (simile is not that far-fetched) along with the Barchester dog. A problem was that this boat, too, took on water, and after a while we split the task three ways: one person pulls on a rope in the water, one pushes from behind, and one bails. And so we made slow, but steady progress. And lo and behold what do we see a few blocks down but - another boat! And so ensued another lengthy delay - which we needed, because pulling these things through the water is exhausting work - we "borrowed" the new boat, transferred our cargo onto the newer, smaller, and lighter craft, and proceeded towards the lake and high ground.

We made it eventually to Wales street, which marks a crest of a sort of ridge - the ground is much higher there, and the water was shallower, about waist high, and we could walk without much difficulty. At this point our companions took leave to investigate - you guessed it - another boat. So, I simply looped the rope around my chest in a harness, put my shoulders forwards, and head down, and did my best imitation of a canal boat mule, pulling the skiff, my mother, and Vic the dog.

And arriving at last at Downman and Hayne, where - glory be, there was dry ground - well, damp and muddy, but no standing water. And there I saw something that indicated to me the true scope of the problem - people, walking on the levee - the same levee Katrina had over topped - walking out of the flooded neighborhoods, coming, in twos and threes. I thought we were the only abandoned ones - it seems there were many. We staggered over to the shade of a tree, and collapsed.

And as a sign that our luck - beginning with the boats - was keeping strong: someone had left an ice chest with food and drinks - particularly several "energy drinks" under the tree for other wanderers. We helped ourselves, and never was food or drink so sweet.

But I realized that I couldn't rest long - this was no place to recover. And I had another obstacle that confronted me: the "pick-up" point, other refugees indicated, was under the Hayne overpass. But to get to it, you had to climb a railroad levee, very steep and coated with sharp stones - and I'd lost my shoes on the way.

But it had to be done. I didn't want to die here, in the heat and the mud after escaping from our watery prison. And so telling my mother to stay put - she could never make it up that hill - I attacked it with the determination of Hillary assaulting Everest.

And it was nearly as tough. If I didn't have the pool cue as support, I'd not have made it. But for every two steps I slid back - cutting open feet, hands, and knees each time, till I was bloody - I made three, and I finally surmounted the trestle, the cue breaking in two with the last effort.. It was only about 50 yards from there to the underpass, but in my exhausted condition - no food and little water for days - it seemed like miles. But I made it at last, and begged the officer there to help my mother. He was a good man; he radioed for help, and a skiff brought her under the trestle and to me, and our reunion was heartfelt - I thought for a while there she'd not be able to make it across.

But her infirmity - age and her recently-healed pelvis - were to work to our aid. Being sick, she and I got prior evacuation, along with some other elderly and sick - to the nearby campus of the University of New Orleans. While we waited for the medical van, we talked with our fellow refugees, and got the same story over and over again: heard the copters, none stopped, decided to make a run for it. Our story, and had we known it at the time, the story of thousands more.

The medivan showed up, and we piled in - one man, wheel-chair ridden, who'd been evacuated by boat after being stuck in his second story apartment for days - was lifted into the van by brute strength. And so the van slowly pulled off, leaving our neighbors behind, and we drove off to an uncertain future. We felt, though, that the worst was over. In a sense it was, but our concurrent sense that we were out of danger, or through with suffering, was utterly incorrect.

 

V. Evacuee

I kept hoping for some sort of quiet refuge - cots, maybe, cheese sandwiches, some medical attention. Maybe UNO would provide it.

Fat chance. It was all the chaos - and the litter - of the last hours of a Jazz Festival. Hundreds of people baking in the heat, garbage everywhere, and the roar of helicopters taking off and landing. And we were close to exhaustion.

But once again, our luck held, and we encountered another angel - that is, a person who gives help "unlooked-for" as Tolkien puts it. And this was the most unlikely - a tattooed biker who looked like he would have been more at home in a bar fight than doing rescue work. But looks oft deceive...

…and after I was referred to him, and mentioned my mother was sick, he took particular attention to us, and got us food - Lunchables, but hey, he tried, some shoes - China-made slippers, and most importantly, a reference to a Red Cross nurse handling the evacuation. She quickly triaged my mother and determined she should receive priority evacuation, along with "only one family member" - no problem, that was only me. We wait for the next helicopter, hopefully to take us to safety - no one was saying just where we were going. My mother went on one copter - some panic as we were separated again - but another angel, Bryan Johnson of the Texas Air National Guard. He kept his promise - I was on the next Blackhawk out.

The roar was deafening, but I could still sense the gasps as we lifted over the city and everyone saw, for the first time, the scope of the devastation. Almost the entire city was under water. The whole city was inoperable. It might as well have bee hit by a nuclear weapon. What would be left of our lives? But there was no time to worry about that - more immediate issues were at hand.

The Blackhawk landed at a spot I knew well - the intersection of I-10 and Causeway Boulevards, near the house in which I grew up and co-incidentally, the site of my first auto accident, so long ago in that summer before college. But now it wasn't the tidily kept expanse of green - now it was a crowded, seething mass of hungry, hot frustrated humanity, for which the only term appropriate could be

 

VI. Refugee.

This was out of the third world. No food, little water, no toilet facilities, no sleeping arrangements other than the baking hot asphalt...but there was medical attention, and my mother's condition allowed us into the critical triage area. There, her various problems - borderline diabetes, her breast cancer, her recently healed pelvis, got her some attention, and it was only then, and only as an afterthought, that I asked them to look at my toe. I had cut it earlier - when, I'm not sure, and it had been down in that cesspool that was New Orleans East for all day. It was somewhat swollen, and was starting to hurt. I showed it to the nurse attending my mother. And when she looked at it, I knew I had a problem.

She called over another assistant. "Infection's spreading fast," she said. "Any more antibiotics?"

"No - out hours ago. None expected until tomorrow," he replied.

She looked at me, and gravely. "This infection's bad - it's spreading past the toe. We have no antibiotics. All we can do is give you this" - she handed me a small plastic pail "and put your foot in a bath of hydrogen peroxide. When you get where you're going, have it looked at immediately. You're probably going to lose that big toe, but maybe they can save the foot."

Oh, God! But again, there wasn't time to dwell on stuff like that. We had to get out of here. And again, my mother's appearance - which seems to cause the most unlikely people to want to help her - worked in her, if not our, favor. A doctor, seeing her advanced exhaustion - and some sort of infection that caused pus to leak from her eyes - put her on the next bus, a special medical transport, to Baton Rouge, where the Pete Maravich Center had been converted into a medical facility. The doctor promised that I'd be on the next bus there. As it pulled off, I felt anxiety - separated again - but also some relief. She was going to be taken care of, I could, for a little while, worry about myself and my condition. I went over to a pile of cardboard box lids and sat down, back against a truck, too exhausted either to move or to sleep, but merely watched the maelstrom of activity around me: buses, ambulances, pulling up, loading, departing, trucks, helicopters, roaring in, taking off, and the seething mass of humanity on the other side of the road, awaiting evacuation as well.

"You look wiped out" a voice from next to me.

African-American dude, rangy, tall. I agreed.

"Had it tough?" Yeah, and I gave a brief rundown. He, too, had to walk from his neighborhood, but the water wasn't so bad there. And then, came a moment I'll always treasure. "Want some cold water?" I nodded, trying to rise when he just said, "you lie still. Watch my pack." He disappeared, and returned a few minutes later with some bottles of very cold spring water, which I accepted with the same eagerness that Ben-Hur accepted the drink of water from Christ at Bethlehem. I think I not so much drank, but actually inhaled the first bottle. And one lesson: the best things in life are the simplest. I never enjoyed champagne so much as that drink.

And maybe I got a quarter hour of sleep. But after a few hours some more buses arrived, and, hearing that they were going to the Maravich Center, got in the line, and boarded.

I sat down in my underwear and scrub shirt in the freezing bus, my foot still in the peroxide pail. I tried to make the best of it, and soon a very nice woman sat down next to me. She was a fellow evacuee, who had been at the Superdome. She'd volunteered for the Red Cross, and got priority evacuation when it was - and this was ominous - it was determined that the safety of her and the other Red Cross workers could "no longer be guaranteed," the first inkling I or probably anyone else had of the hell that the Superdome was soon going to become. But that was not yet, and we chatted amiably. We traded stories: of my confinement, and escape, and of her Superdome experiences. The experience she said of panic gripping thirty-thousand sum-odd people when the roof started to strip away was indescribable.

And even she was an angel; she shared her blanket with me on the trip. Warm and dry, I managed to doze off again, if fitfully. I awoke some time later, the bus still rolling on in the dark. "Not in Baton Rouge yet?" I murmured. She sleepily replied. "Our destination's changed. We're going to the Cajundome in Lafayette. BR is full up."

I snapped suddenly awake. "What!? My mother's in Baton Rouge! She needs me! Stop! I need to get off!" But they told me to sit down, and I reflected for a minute. If buses were available, I could get back to BR, and my mother was surely in good hands. I'd proceed on to Lafayette, and make my next move from there.

We arrived at the USL Cajundome - the basketball arena, now a refugee center - when it was still dark. It was so early in fact, that there were no services available - no blankets, no mats, no food, no nothing.I managed to find a military MRE - vegetarian manicotti - and ate it without the formality of heating. Then, worn out and pretty much at the end of my rope, I collapsed for an hour or so on the cement floor. What the morrow would bring, I had not the energy to care.

 

VII. Refuge.

The next morning, I arose, stiff as a board from lying on the concrete, filthy, hungry, but - for the moment at least, out of immediate danger. But now to see to my own health.

My high blood pressure got me admitted to see a physician when they arrived at 8 a.m. First, the foot, and the news was very good. There obviously had been infection,but it seemed on the mend; he didn't think I was going to part company with my big toe, much less my foot. The pressure was high,but he was able to provide me with substitutes for my usual meds, thus taking care of that problem.

Now to try to get out of here and back to Baton Rouge. All this would have been avoided I'd brought my driver's license - I could've gone to a Bank One, withdrawn money, and rented a car. But this was going to call for more finesse.

But before that, I met an old acquaintance from New Orleans - Ronny Ricard, ex-bail bondsman and current operator of rehab facilities in NO. Like everyone else, the rich and the poor, he was now at the mercy of the system.

What was so good about this, was that Ronnie took me under his wing and allowed me to feel human again. He's a natural-born hustler, and that's what you need in this situation. He got me some cosmetics, and I was able - oh, blessed gift - to take a shower, thus managing to wash off the accumulated filth/toxins/cooties of the last few days and walk like I was a decent member of society again. I also managed to latch on to some clean boxers, although I still had the same dirty scrub shirt. I went into the main arena of the Cajundome - large, strewn with mattresses and my fellow ex-Orleanians, and strangely quiet because noise was absorbed by the ceiling space. And there, my first hot meal - beef stew - in days. And another angel - who let me use her cell phone to contact close friends, the Lillians, in Shreveport. I tried to arrange for some wired funds. That failed, due to some problem with Western Union, but Guy and Rose said that they'd try to drive down to rescue me tomorrow late. Thank God, I said, the angels are working overtime. But before Guy and Rose could arrive, or even leave, there was to be another intervention.

But first since I'd seen him, Ronnie had been working hard on my behalf. He had gotten pillows, blankets, and finally, the piece de resistance - an inflatable mattress. In the Cajundome, this was luxury, and I was actually able to get some real sleep. That air mattress was a pleasure worthy of Sybaris.

 

VIII. Rescue.

One thing I have to say If you're going to be a refugee, be one in the Cajun country. No cheese sandwiches here. Cajun chili for dinner on Thursday, and turkey-rice dressing, jambalaya, and red beans and rice for lunch on Friday. And it was on Friday that fate took an unexpected turn. I was sitting down, plotting what had to be done if Guy and Rosie came for me - mostly, get to Baton Rouge to find mom, wherever she might be, when Ronnie came running back with a paper, which I still have and will treasure all my days. DENNIS DOLBEAR, it read in caps, and had the message: mom was safe in Baton Rouge, and was trying to find me. Thank God! It even listed phone numbers, but we couldn't get through right away - but this was a solid piece of information, now we had something to go on. Things were really looking up. Ronnie said that he'd just been walking downstairs when he saw a young man holding the sign. He told him that he knew me, was staying with me, and would give me the message. The young man said he had to leave, but would relay my whereabouts to others.

And sure enough, more angels arrived, this in the form of a lovely young woman named Regan Hall and her brother, Pike. I almost asked him if he was related to the famous Pike Hall, justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. I didn't, thinking the question absurd. (As it turns out, he's his grandson.)

They informed me that they were here to rescue me; I asked if Ronnie could come along - it was a debt of honor - and they, wonderfully, agreed. We piled into their SUV and pulled away from the CajunDome. Saved. Saved. Saved.

On the way, Regan filled me in: she was pre-med at LSU, and had been volunteering at the Maravich Center. What she'd seen there definitely tested her resolve to be a doctor, but also toughened her, too: not many pre-meds have a familiarity with the "black tag" room, that repository of definitely terminal patients who have not long for this world. But it appeared she'd handled it well - this young woman is very tough in the fibre. But she'd also convinced her mother - an RN at Our Lady of the Lake - to volunteer, and there they'd met my mother, and taken pity upon her - to the extent of actually taking her home with them, and making her welcome as if a member of the family. Of all of our angels, I hold these dearest, with a gratitude that is profound and a debt never really repayable. And on top of that, Mollie, the mother, sent Regan and Pike to Lafayette with orders: don't come back without Dennis. No problem there.

And so a few hours after leaving Lafayette, and two and a half days after laying on the asphalt in misery at I-10 and Causeway, I was sitting in the lovely Regan home in clean clothes provided by neighbors, familiar suburban setting, kitchen smells, comfortable couch, sunlight slanting through the windows. One of the two seemed a dream - but which one? Did I have a nightmare, or was I dreaming now, and would any moment awake on the asphalt - or worse, in that black, stifling attic?

They were both true, though, and that just adds to the dreamlike, unreal quality of my life since Katrina entered it. In time, we met Mollie, Regan and Pike's lovely mother, and Toni, her mother, a wonderful combination of traditional granny and matriarch. Their open, unforced, simple generosity - and humanity - reduced me to blubbering sentiment. We spent one night there, eating well - pizza - and resting. The next day, we made contact with my mother's younger sister Marilyn, who was visiting my cousin Cindy, in Georgia. They invited us to stay with them - we agreed, and Cindy and her husband Donnie, in another angelic move, drove all night from Georgia to come pick up, and at that point, we must end that tale for present.

My mother and I are safe in their large house in Cartersville, and planning our next move. What that might be, I do not know. But this I know: despite everything: the storm, the nights in the attic, the risky escape, the suffering as a refugee: we were almost insanely lucky. We could have been in the Superdome, or worse, the Convention Center, where just about every horror except cannibalism occurred, or - more likely, simply dead in that attic. For that, we have many people - like the Halls, or that nameless biker, or the two guys from Barchester Street - to thank, but also maybe I gained something, I think. Because if you had described what I did over the last few days, before the hurricane, I'd not have believed it; but under stress, and difficult situations, maybe something I had in me, heretofore unknown, came out. Surely now I feel I have some right to life other than as a gift from my parents. I'm not a hero, far from it. But maybe, after all of this, I'm a little bit
more of a man.

 

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