broken scene from Katrina.
Brett Mohar/Flickr

Previously: After the helicopter arrived and medics delivered Keisha’s baby, my buddies and I once again headed out to face the rising floodwaters. Due to fallen trees and wires, we had to push the boat we’d found. It was like wading through a nightmare: lifeless puppies floating by, dogs with the mange paddling for their lives, families praying on porches, and signs like one pleading, GRANDMA INSIDE NEEDS DIALYSIS! Screams from those trapped inside their homes carried my thoughts to the guys I had left behind in Orleans Parish Prison after my release, only a few weeks earlier. I later learned that deputies had gone home to their families, abandoning the prisoners, who were locked in their cells; some inmates never made it out..

On the way back to the projects, my friends and I moved five bodies—two ladies and three men—out of the water and put them on dry ground. We did this out of respect, but also because the odor of wet, decaying corpses was making the neighborhood stink. One guy . . . he was a white guy, a taxi driver . . . was purple and his body was hard but he was so blown up, it looked like you could take a needle and pop him.
When we finally got back to the projects, we let every family know that in less than 10 hours, Katrina would hit. We told them what the helicopter rescuers had told us, “When it hits, crouch down on the floor.” I wondered whether this was how it felt inside a plane that’s about to crash.
The steady whooshing sound got deeper. The whole projects were shaking. It was August, and if I weren’t so drenched, I would be sweating. But the way those gusts blew the rain all helter skelter, it chilled like blasts of air conditioning.
We had a whole stack of food boxes we had collected in the boat. When I distributed them to families at the projects, I felt like the military, supporting others, helping them survive.
My buddies and I swapped turns sleeping; someone was always up to watch that everybody was okay. If one of us said, “Let me catch a nap,” another would say, “Get some rest. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Some younger kids tried to put on brave faces, but I could see fear in their eyes. To keep the them from going down to play in the water, we blocked the stairways on both ends of the balcony, which was the length of a football field.
Calio asked us guys, “You scared? Watcha think gonna happen?”
I said, “If you scared, you shoulda gone with the helicopter guys who took Keisha and her baby. Y’all shoulda thought about going to church all these years.”
People say there’s not a God, but someone had to be looking after us. We were like one huge family on this big old balcony. I led prayers for all the men, women, children, and even puppy dogs. “Lord we come together today to remove this thing that we are facing. Not just for us but for everyone else that’s facing this terrible thing they say going to happen.
“God always say two or more gathered together, he’s in the midst. Not just for us—people in the hospital, people who can’t walk, people who can’t see. We ask for everyone.”
Just then, a friend ran out on the balcony. His mother was having a seizure. From being in prison I knew what to do; I’d had cellies who’d had seizures. So I ran behind him and when we got to her she was foaming at the mouth.
I turned her on her side, and then I sat on top of her with all my 240 pounds, so that she couldn’t move. Within twenty minutes the seizure was over. I helped her to a couch and talked to her, and when she spoke back, I knew she was okay.
My buddies and I chatted with everyone, trying to take inventory of all the residents. “Lillian, where do you think your boys went?” I asked an old woman.
“Last time I seen them they was going to the Superdome,” she replied. Like so many others, she’d had no contact with her sons and was fretting.
Another neighbor kept asking, “Where my grandbaby at?
By now my buddies and I had grown to a group of two dozen or so, most of us in our thirties. All the way down the balcony, people gathered in clusters, talking, just like it was a family day, like a reunion, which helped keep their minds off all the worry.
Later on, I sat thinking about a lot of things, like whether I was going to make it and why I’d talked my friends into staying, just because I didn’t want to leave my city. If I heard the weatherman say something like that now, I wouldn’t wait around to find out what was going to happen. I’d be in the next state.
My guilt helped motivate me to step forward and do whatever it took to help others survive.
At last, under a sky the color of tar, I slept on one of the sofas we had dragged out to the balcony. The sky remained nearly black and by morning, rain was coming down so hard, it sounded like ice falling.

(to be continued)