A New Orleans Family's Harrowing Tale of Escape After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Wooten family spent a full week trapped in the city's Algiers section -- foraging and fighting for their lives against violent looters -- before being rescued. Finally evacuated to Cape Cod, Mass., the Wootens say they're done with Louisiana.
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A New Orleans Family's Harrowing Tale of Escape

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A New Orleans Family's Harrowing Tale of Escape

A New Orleans Family's Harrowing Tale of Escape

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After the weekend, Mayor Nagin has said parts of the city will begin reopening to residents, and the first of those neighborhoods will be Algiers on Monday. It's now dry. At one point, it was covered by several feet of water. NPR's Chris Arnold now has the story of one family that was trapped in Algiers, foraging for food for a full week and, at times, fighting for their lives.

(Soundbite of airplane)

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

Over the past two weeks at Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, troops have been flying off to the Gulf Coast and evacuees have been flying in. Some 200 people are staying in dorms with real beds and hot meals. Forty-one-year-old Patrick Wooten, who's here with his family, ran a small roofing and construction business in New Orleans. He lost his tools and all his possessions to the storm. But he and his wife, Terell(ph), say they feel lucky to be alive.

TERELL (Patrick Wooten's Wife): It was just hell.

Mr. PATRICK WOOTEN (Evacuee): You can't sleep at night. Only sleep in the day, 'cause at nighttime, that when all the looting's going on.

ARNOLD: The Wootens say their street in the Algiers neighborhood flooded waist-deep, but the water quickly receded, and that's when some thugs and drug dealers started ransacking stores and invading houses. Fights broke out. Wooten heard shotguns and what sounded like AK-47s. Wooten is big, strong and broad-shouldered, and he says one night, swinging a tire iron, he fought off a gang of looters as they tried to break in his kitchen window.

Mr. WOOTEN: Hitting the window. `Bam, get back! Bam, get back!' I said, `Man, would you all please get back, man?' I said, `We don't have nothing.' Then they hear me crying, you know. I--you know, it's just hard.

ARNOLD: Wooten yelled for his kids to take their mom into the bedroom and keep their heads down.

Mr. WOOTEN: They just stay around their mom, you know. They--you know, protect her, like. You know what I'm saying? God must have been on my side, you know, to--put 'em--not to shoot in the house.

ARNOLD: Wooten's 16-year-old son, Terez(ph), remembers huddling with his younger brother and his mom, worrying about what the thugs would do to his dad.

TEREZ (Patrick Wooten's Son): I thought they were going to kill him, you know. I didn't want to see him go down. We fresh meat, so it was real scary.

ARNOLD: During the days, Patrick Wooten would leave the house and go searching for food and water in stores that had already been broken into. Terez says his dad would bring back all he could: diapers, tampons, disinfectant to pass out to his neighbors.

TEREZ: Where we was at, he was like God. I mean, he'll fix people's stuff. He'll bring you some of our food so that you won't be hungry and everything.

ARNOLD: Patrick Wooten wanted to leave his neighborhood, but he says police told him to stay put because things were worse at the Superdome and the Convention Center. So Wooten was left fighting looters at night and afraid the police would shoot at him in the overall chaos. At one point, as he carried food back from a church, he says police drew their weapons on him and his kids and started yelling they had orders to shoot to kill. Then after a week of all this, his sons rushed into the house saying they'd found three corpses out back.

TEREZ: Came running and said, `Man, you got bodies in the yard.'

Mr. WOOTEN: It was two elder people and one young person.

ARNOLD: Then Wooten heard one of the looters out on the street bragging about how he killed these people while robbing their houses. That was all Wooten could take. He says he walked to a wide-open intersection in the streets.

Mr. WOOTEN: So I had to take my shirt off and flag a helicopter and the helicopter came sort of lower, like--I'm pleading like this.

ARNOLD: Wooten said a Guardsman trained his machine gun on him, but Wooten got down on his knees and put his hands together, basically begging for help. The helicopter called in a truck. Wooten says he reported the guy who'd been bragging about the murders, and the man was taken into custody. Then, fearing revenge, he convinced the Guard to evacuate his family.

Mr. WOOTEN: Then we get to the airport in New Orleans, we had to sleep on the floor with the dogs and everything, the dogs peeing all on the floor, so you know that's hi--how you made your clothes smell.

ARNOLD: But when Wooten and the planeload of evacuees landed here at Otis Air Base, exhausted and filthy, Red Cross volunteers, local pastors and doctors lined up on the Tarmac and opened their arms.

Mr. WOOTEN: You come out there and getting off the plane, I said, `Oh, man, I'm really--I don't want to do this to these people, touch them.' And I said, `I'm stinky.' And so they're overlooking that filth, you know what I'm saying, man? `Come here and give me a hug.' I said, `Oh'--`Come here.' I say, `OK, here you go, but I'm stinky.' They ain't worried about how stinky I was. They said, `Come here.' I said, `Oh, man, this is love.'

ARNOLD: Wooten says he's laughing a lot now that it's over and he says he likes Massachusetts and wants to stay here. His kids have started school nearby and Wooten's already trying out for a job as a chef at a golf course. But he wants to get his whole family into counseling. Their first couple of nights here, his kids were jumping up in bed if they heard a noise, and his wife, Terell, kept wanting to stockpile food and water in their room. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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