New Orleans Stories: Don

[Editor's note: this is the second in an ongoing series of oral histories from survivors of Hurricane Katrina. You can download a clip from Don's story, and to listen to more histories, please visit Alive in Truth.]

Don is a 48-year-old artist and photographer who worked for eight days saving elderly residents from his flooded neighborhood in New Orleans. Don and his friends brought over 300 people to safety in a school. He was airlifted to Camp Otis Air Force Base in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

This story was recorded by Sarah Yahm, a documentarian with Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project. Alive in Truth is an all-volunteer oral history and witnessing project led by poet Abe Louise Young. (If you would like to support their work, please donate online at Austin Community Foundation and specify "Alive in Truth.")

I was well-stocked with food. A lot of clean water, drinkable water, and water to bathe with -- I prepared for it. I had a little battery-operated television, a little battery-operated CD player, and an extensive CD collection. Primarily jazz. Progressive and modern stuff, you know, and some of the classics. Big Coltrane fan. Miles fan. At night I would go out on the balcony and just let the music wash over me, you know. No light pollution anywhere, virtually no noise. It was wonderful, actually, to experience that in New Orleans, which is usually very loud. You can't ever see the stars for the lights, you know.

I entertained myself a lot. I would sing to this German Shepard across the street. He was really big and rather ferocious so I didn't want to save him. You know I kept him alive. I fed him and I would sing to him at night. The dog appreciated it and so did I. He was a great dog and I hope he made it. I had to leave him behind. Nobody wanted to save this dog. He was huge. He was not friendly. I left him on two steps of a door entrance hovering over the water. So I'm not sure.

Yeah. I'll really start it at the beginning. I wake up the morning of the flood. I saw the flooding start the night before and my brother-in-law was with me at the time. We had just eaten dinner and the hurricane pretty much subsided. We'd breezed through that and were like oh, okay it's over. No big deal, lights are out and no power left.

I had rigged up a way to cook. I was using Sterno heating cans as my stove and I'd taken the iron grating off the stove and I was cooking hot meals. So we ate dinner and we're sitting there and then we hear the water coming into the house, but we couldn't figure out what the sound was. Well, it was coming up through the floor in the bottom of the house, through the tiles, and we saw that. It really surprised us. To cut that short, by the next morning there was six and a half feet of water in the house and fourteen feet outside.

Well, the very morning we're up a friend and neighbor that I know comes around on his boat and he's got his family and two small children. His name is Wimpy, and he stops and shouts. I got on the balcony and he's like, "Don, we can't stay! I've got these little kids. We got to go. If you want the boat take the ride with me and I'll give you the boat. Of course in fourteen feet of water I was like, yeah. So my brother-in-law looks at me and he's like, "Man, I'm gonna leave, I can't stay." And I was like, "Thank you." I was so glad he did that. So we get in the boat and leave.

We get to the highway at the foot of Franklin Avenue and the I-10 upramp, which was the only dry embarkation place. He gets off the boat, the family unloads off the boat, I get off, we tie it up. I saw one search and rescue crew. They happened to be there because they lived in the area and they got together themselves, and they had one boat.

I walked up to 'em and said "Look, I got a boat: I want to help you," and that's how I started. A stranger saw me saying that to them and he walked up to me and asked if he could get on with me. And I was like "Of course, I don't want to be alone." This guy, Wiley and I started, with he and I. He gets on the boat. We go back to my mother-in -law's house. I had a neighbor across the street, Barry. He's like my age -- I'm 48 -- and Barry was there so, so I called to him across the water. "Hey Barry, I got a boat, what do you want to do? We got to get these old folks out of the water." And he was like, immediately, no hesitation, "Come get me."

So I go across the water, we get him and that's three of us. And we start pulling people out of the water. Eventually, we pull a young couple. This woman Marla and her boyfriend, Bladys, he's from Jamaica. They joined us. So that built our numbers to five and we just kept doing it. You know, pulling the old folks out and bringing them to the highway.

For most of the people we pulled out, there was no way they could have got out. We had to chop through a lot of roofs, the cliché that everybody seen on the news. Well, this is very true: we had to chop through a lot of roofs to get people out of their attics because they couldn't get out of their own attics. They certainly couldn't go out of their doors because I'm talking about the single level homes; they were totally flooded out.

So the next morning, we gonna go out and start again. We get up. We have hot breakfast. We all get full and I pull out a bottle of Chenin Blanc. We pass the bottle around. We'd get on the boat. I'd pop the cork and we'd pass the bottle around. And all of us get a little buzz going, and we started off the next day just like that and went around and rescued some more people. Ran into a couple of more people individually and that brought us up to seven. We would up pulling another guy out of the water and he joined us, he made the eighth.

Eventually, we started getting so far away from the highway that we had to find a place to start putting the people we were pulling out of their houses and out of the water. We broke into the school, Saint Rafael: again, [to Saint Rafael School] I thank you very much for letting us use your facilities. You didn't know we did, and we tried our best not to destroy them. I really don't think we did a lot of damage. Of course, we did some. We housed almost 300 people in your school so know that it went for a good purpose. And I left notes all over the chalkboards in the classroom thanking them and telling them how many people lived in this room for how many days. We rescued 340 people, 12 dogs, 8 cats and 2 birds. We kept an account of it, we really did, and like I said, we had this great wine collection and everyday we'd pass a bottle of wine.

We wound up looting a grocery store, the Save-A-Center back on the Lakefront. This is a bit of an amazing story: this is also tying into the beautiful part of humanity that I kept seeing. We're coming out of the store. There are eight of us and we're just like armloads of grocery and water and sodas. There's a row of police out front and it scared us all. I look over to Marla -- she was the closest person to me, and I just said to her off-hand, "We're dead."

They had the right to shoot looters and we were looters. She looked at me, and I could see she was frightened and so was I. All of us, you know. We just froze for a while and the cops were scared of us, too. I can't blame them: we were all armed. You know. I rode the entire thing out with a .38 strapped to my side.

I just walked up to the policeman and I explained what we were doing and where we were taking the food. And he understood. After he heard what we were doing, he helped us. He told his confederates. His fellow police officers lowered their guns and they all helped us load the boats and then told us to come back and make another run and then he warned us you know: "After you do the second run we're going to help you, and then we're going to board the store up and don't come back." But I thought that was amazing. He had every right to shoot us or take us to jail and did quite the opposite. He helped us. All six of these cops helped us do this. I mean that, it chokes me up now.

We did that for at least eight days that's all we did, every day. It's actually what kept us alive and kept us all sane. I know I didn't want to just sit around and think about, I've lost everything, my home is gone, you know. Literally: my business is gone, most of my equipment was in my house underwater. All of my negatives and slides and I'm not talking about just salt water. This is salt water with sewage in it, all the chemicals that make up automobiles and that are in homes, you know the paint, asbestos. So I know I don't have anything left. Nothing I can do about it. Mother nature made this decision and we decided to build what we live in. I've been thinking most of my life we live wrong but I'm not a genius, I haven't got a solution. I've just got to do what we all do.

We finally had enough attention from air rescue to start evacuating everybody and the eighth day literally all of those people in the school were airlifted out of there. I mean all of them, you know, we just had a string of helicopters coming back and forth all day pulling people out. And it was kind of comical because a lot of the elderly people actually enjoyed that... I'm proud to say we got them all out safely and I'm certain they all made it to at least to the airport. I hope they didn't take them to the convention center.

I've got one story I've got to tell you. The first guy I personally rescued was an 82-year-old gentleman. He was floating along in the water by himself. He had a life preserver on. He was on his back, serene, and I initially thought he was just a dead guy, you know, and we were going to pull him out of the water just to not have a dead body deteriorate in the water. I saw the guy's hands move and I knew he was alive, so we go over to him and I pull him up on the boat. And like I said, he's this little frail 82-year-old gentleman. I get him on the boat and he looks up at me and asks me if I had a beer. This is the first word that this guy says to me: "You got a beer?"

And I had a case, a six-pack of Heinekens. So I pop a Heineken and he downs the Heineken. And the three of us (at this point it was myself, Wiley, and Marla on the boat) we were stunned by it. Literally. And he could see we were just stunned by his attitude and he said, "No, son, you don't understand. I knew I wasn't gonna die in this. I knew I'd be rescued." And I said it out loud: "Well, how the hell could you think that, considering what's going on and you're alone and you're this old guy, you know?" And he looked at me and said "Well, where am I now, son?"

And it floored me that a man that old and that frail could feel that way. And that's really what gave me the strength to make it through this, when I realized somebody this old could have that kind of mental strength. I'm looking at myself going, I'm in great health, I'm 48, and this is nothing for me. This'll be no biggie ... and it wasn't from then on. I was completely over being afraid of it because of this gentleman. I never knew this guy's name. When we got him to dry land he looked at me and he said "Son, you don't have a life vest."

He gave me his life vest. I wore it everyday and didn't take it off until I finally took a shower here at Camp Otis and I had plenty of people saying to me "You can relax now, you can take it off. You ought to throw it away, it's probably stinking and full of the pollution." And I kept saying to them, you don't understand what this means. It's not that I'm afraid or anything. It means something. And that's why I keep telling the beauty that I saw.

Of course, I saw some death. The first day, the first boatload of people we brought to dry land there was a dead body at the foot of the water on the up ramp to the highway. And one of the elderly gentlemen we brought up to the highway -- because there was nowhere else to put them -- they had to sit up there in bright sun, because it was really hot after the hurricane. Well, one of those gentlemen died that day. And when I subsequently left nearly two weeks, later both those bodies were still there wrapped in the same blankets that we wrapped them in. Only like, three times their size, you know, they'd bloated from the heat and the deterioration and the gases in them.

This was, to me, even more horrible than the bodies. There were police by this time all over and rescue people, etc., everywhere. I looked at one of the New Orleans policeman and I said to him "Why don't you move these things?" and he just point-blank told me it's not his fucking job, and turned his back and walked off from me. And I hadn't realized what I was doing. I was so angry. My friend Wiley that was working with me, he grabbed me, because I had my hand on my pistol and I didn't even realize, because it wasn't a conscious motion. But I'm so glad he did it 'cause I would have probably shot this officer, and like I said it wasn't conscious, it was just a reaction to him, you know.

The major airlift to the airport was across the street from the [New Orleans] Convention Center....If they'd have brought me there they'd have had to shoot me to keep me there. It was horrible.


I got airlifted to the parking lot and I walked away from it because I still didn't want to leave the city. I had this cut on my foot and still after I got there and realized it was my last moment I couldn't take that thought so I turned around and walked back into the city. I walked through the CBD, the central business district, and I took photographs there and it horrified what I was starting to see. Because this area was totally dry and had very little wind damage. And then I walked further and then walked through the French Quarter and I saw the same thing. No water damage, very little wind damage. Now the wind damage -- that's chance. The water -- that's suspect, because these are areas that always flood and they had no water damage, no flooding in these areas. That's really suspect to me.

What I do suspect is that the pump systems were reverse-flowed. From my understanding of design they are designed to pump from the middle of the city to the river and to the lake. Well what I first saw from my mother in law's house was floodwater moving towards the lake which would mean it came from the river towards the middle of the city and then once the lake overflowed it flowed back, so I kind of think the water was intentionally pumped away from the so-called money areas, the resort areas, the French quarter, the business district and the so-called Garden District where the richer folks live.


The river was at one of the lowest point I'd ever seen it. I mean really low. There are these steps adjacent to the Moon Walk where you walk down to the water's edge. They were completely exposed whereas you usually can't see the last three or four steps and particularly in the flood you can't see the bottom eight. You could see every step. That's how low the water on the river was.


We spent the rest of the night at the New Orleans airport, which was where the helicopters were bringing people to catch planes to go out to various locations. But we finally get a plane, and we still don't know where we're going....I woke up just as we were starting to come down to land, and I recognized the Atlantic Ocean coastline and I was happy. I was like, 'Oh man, we're in the East.'

That's what it meant to me, we're nowhere near Texas, great. Because I'd seen the horrors that was Texas, you know. It was like, great, you know. And then I'm seeing the shape of the Cape. I didn't really know the Cape but I knew the landscape... We land on the airforce base and then I recognize that right away and I was like, "Oh no, we're going to be living in a military barracks." I did that when I was a kid and didn't like it when I had to be there. "Aah, this is gonna be horrible." Well, that feeling changed so fast. We get off the plane and we're walking up to this huge hangar and there are like a thousand people there and they just start cheering. It was so amazing, I was turning around like did we miss something, you know. But they were applauding us. It overwhelmed all of us. It was unbelievable, the warmth these people projected to us, I mean, immediately.


I have enough faith in me to know that I'll be able to survive here. I have a place in a town called Chatham in Massachusetts. It's lower on the Cape at what they call the elbow. It's like a quarter mile from the ocean and I have this great estuary and a huge pond in the backyard so I can't wait to go there. I have a job here now. I'm working at a place outside of the Otis Airforce base, called Southport. It's this ultra-rich retirement community. I do general maintenance and landscaping. But that ends in December 1st so ... after that I'll have to sell my art.

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