by Robert LeBlanc
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.
They 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.