The Last Boat Out

by Robert LeBlanc
Louisiana, USA

On Wednesday, August 31, my friend Jeff Rau and I wove a motorboat through New Orleans, pulling people out of the water. We ferried people all day between Carrolton Avenue and the Causeway overpass, about a mile and a half each way.

Early on, we saw a black man in a boat with no motor. He rescued people and paddled them a mile and a half to safety — with nothing but a piece of two by four lumber for a paddle. He then turned around and went back for more people. He refused our help, saying he didn’t want to slow us down. At 5 p.m. he headed on another trip, knowing he would finish after dark.

One group of 50 people we rescued that Wednesday afternoon was on the bridge that crosses over Airline Highway near Carrolton Avenue. Most had been there with no food, water, or anywhere to go since Monday morning, with 10 feet of water all around them.

One man had been there since the beginning, helping people reach the bridge and caring for them afterward. He didn’t leave the bridge until everyone got off safely, even deferring to people who’d just arrived. This man waited on the bridge until dusk, leaving on one of the last boats out that night. He risked not making it at all.

In a really rough neighborhood, we came across five seemingly unsavory characters, one with gunshot wound scars. We found them at a recreational center, one of the few two-story buildings around. They broke into the center, then gathered as many people as possible from the neighborhood.

The Last Boat OutThey stayed outside in the center all day, helping people into rescue boats. We approached them at 6:30 p.m., obviously one of the last trips of the day. Yet instead of getting in our boat, they sent us further into the neighborhood to get more people out of homes and off rooftops.

These five were on the last boat out at sundown. They were incredibly grateful, repeating “God is going to bless y’all for this”. One even offered us his Allen Iverson jersey, perhaps the most valuable possession among them. We declined, but understood the depth of his gesture.

The looting and shooting you saw on television tells but a small part of the story. By showing the worst effects of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed, news reports discouraged volunteers from helping. But help was still needed, and will be for a long time.

In case it matters, I’m politically conservative. I was impressed to see young and seemingly poor black people caring for sickly and seemingly well-to-do white people. We can sort out political issues later; anyone with a sense of compassion will agree that New Orleans needs help, people’s lives need to be saved and families need to be put back together. They now need all of our help.

I want everyone to know how gracious these people were, despite being stranded and panicked. This transcends politics. It’s about humanity.

Originally published as HeroicStories #632 on Sep 9, 2005

4 thoughts on “The Last Boat Out”

  1. Unfortunately compassion isn’t good for ratings despite it being the one thing we all need to see and hear. The news outlets should include this kind of goodness instead of all the hate and negativity. It would help to make us all better people and kinder to neighbors who are a little different from us.

  2. Amen to that. With our record flood in Baton Rouge August 2016 which flooded over 100,000 homes, there were hundreds using their private boats to rescue thousands of people in their flooded homes. These selfless individuals were dubbed the “Cajun Navy”.

  3. Having grown up in New Orleans, ‘Last Boat Out’ brought tears to my eyes– and memories of hurricanes past. Sounds much like the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy… filling sandbags up on the levee out by New Orleans East until the winds got too much for the rag tag volunteers… They trucked us to the old Lakefront Airport hanger where we filled bags before the wind took off the roof… National Guard trucked us to underneath an overpass by City Park where we huddled in the back of the truck until dawn. The bunch of us ranged from college kids, to tattooed bikers, Black, white, Hispanic. Then wading chin deep in flood waters over city streets in 9th Ward to find friends family members. Later catching a ride with a small outboard and a skiff, making dozens more trips. Did you know that neighborhood grocers commonly would pass the word to neighbors just before the storm hit, inviting neighbors to come in and help clear out the shelves… “Can’t sell stuff that’s been flooded… better you can use it.” White collar workers, senior citizens, people helping strangers but now neighbors all.


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