Escaping New Orleans by Water

Some people are managing to get out of New Orleans by ferry after floods from Hurricane Katrina inundated the city. But the transport system faces many of the challenges seen around the rest of the city.

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Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish was among the areas hardest hit on Monday by Hurricane Katrina. The rural parish just southeast of New Orleans is largely underwater. One local official said after the hurricane storm surge, the Gulf of Mexico moved inland 40 miles. For those in the region who were trapped in their homes, the only road to safety is by water. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Algiers Point sits just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans' French Quarter. From the top of the levee, you can see Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, still largely intact after Katrina's beating. During better days, a ferry service ran between Algiers Point and the town of Chalmette across the river and a few miles east. Since the storm, the ferries have become a lifeline to thousands trapped in St. Bernard Parish, people like Denise Bennett.

Ms. DENISE BENNETT (Hurricane Survivor): We jump out of the kitchen window and she climbed on the roof and I panic. I was about to go under and she said, `Ma, don't do this to me. Don't leave me.' And she pulled me and we stood on the roof for like 12 hours in the rain, holding--you know, just clenching, holding onto each other's in nothing but nightclothes. And we thought the wind was going to knock us in the water.

ALLEN: Much of the flooding in New Orleans occurred when levees gave way, but in St. Bernard, evacuees say it was the storm surge on Monday that inundated their homes. Delores Ossevaito(ph) and her husband, Wilson(ph), were at their home in Kenilworth Monday when the floodwaters rushed in.

Ms. DELORES OSSEVAITO (Hurricane Survivor): When I looked out the door, I saw the water almost coming into the house. And I told my husband, I said, `The water's almost in the house.' He says, `No, it can't be.' I said, `Yes, it is.' So by the time he got up off the sofa, all we could do was just, you know, run to the door and it was just a big ol' gush of water came in. We was able to jump in the boat, get the two dogs in there...

Unidentified Woman: Oh, no.

Ms. OSSEVAITO: ...and get out.

ALLEN: The Ossevaitos yesterday were two of the thousands of people who've made it to the Chalmette ferry wharf, one of the few dry spots remaining in St. Bernard Parish. They have every reason to be tired of boats. They spent two nights in their neighbor's flatboat and two more nights in their own bigger boat.

Ms. OSSEVAITO: It was fun sleeping in the boat, though, because we could look out and look at all the stars.

(Soundbite of ferry engine)

ALLEN: The Auberville(ph) is a single-deck ferry that, till this week, was plying the Mississippi about 40 miles upriver in Reserve, Louisiana. As it steams downriver, it passes the two New Orleans ferries that usually serve this route. They're high up on the riverbanks, where they were left by the storm surge. Captain Joe McKeefe says one of the problems has been lawlessness on the west bank, where they deposit the refugees. Gunshots periodically are heard. Guardsmen say there have been four shootings since they've been there. McKeefe says because it's not safe to spend the night on Algiers Point, the evacuees have to wait on the docks in Chalmette overnight and, in some cases, for days. Many have died. Another problem has been that until yesterday, there weren't enough buses to take evacuees from the boats to shelters. On Thursday, McKeefe says, he almost had to return one ferry-load of passengers back to Chalmette.

Mr. JOE McKEEFE (Ferry Captain): And when we told them that we were going to bring them back, they got real hysterical. They almost made me cry. I saw people shaking, saying, `No, I don't want to go back to Chalmette Slip. Don't take me back.' They didn't want to go back, so we held them up.

ALLEN: And 30 minutes later, McKeefe says, he was able to get them on their buses.

(Soundbite of ferry engine)

ALLEN: When the Auberville pulls into Algiers Point, the evacuees from St. Bernard calmly file down the gangway. There's relief but also uncertainty about what lies ahead. No one on the landing, the National Guardsmen, the Coast Guard, even the bus drivers, seem to know where they're headed; maybe Houston, most guess. Pat Pendergraft gets off the ferry with two good-sized dogs. He calls them Heinz 57s. He's carrying a gym bag. It has his pants and shirts. He says that's all he has left. After they walk down the gangway, both dogs just sit down on the dry land. Pendergraft picks them up, one under each arm.

Mr. PAT PENDERGRAFT (Hurricane Survivor): My wife left Saturday. She's in Arkansas. So wherever I go, I'll call her. I'm hoping she can come get me and start my life all over again.

ALLEN: The evacuees trudge up the boat ramp, carrying all they've got left in laundry baskets, shopping carts, dragons, trash bags. The National Guard checks them for weapons and, one by one, they get on the waiting school buses.

Unidentified Man: I'm not trying to ...(unintelligible), I'm just letting you guys know before you get up there, make sure you get all the necessary equipment out of your bags. Carry what you can with you on your lap!

ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

Unidentified Man: Most important, be careful as well!

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