Al DuVernay is “New Orleans” to the bone. He was born there, raised there, graduated from the University of New Orleans and has been based in the Crescent City for his 27 years working as a paleontologist for Shell Oil.
When Hurricane Katrina was roaring toward his town late last August, DuVernay stayed put.
“Evacuation was not an option,” he said. “It is indeed foolish to go toe-to-toe with Mother Nature, but that’s the old south Louisiana culture. If you stay behind, you might be able to help out.
“I know it’s hard to understand,” he added. “But that’s what we do.”
So he prepared his vintage New Orleans “camel back” house (some of the living area is a second story above the garage and workshop) in the Lakeview area, south of Lake Pontchartrain, situated two-and-a-half feet below sea level with leveed drainage canals to the east and west.
He was organized as he could be. Extra batteries were handy, as were tools, rescue paraphernalia, food and bottled water.
He also had geared and gassed up his 16-foot aluminum flat boat, what he called a standard Louisiana fishing boat, which has an 85-horsepower motor and is handy for the shallow, marshy areas.
The “plan” assumes the boat can be used if the water gets too high -- and cooperates by rising slowly. The plan had been in place for every storm since Betsy in 1965, but had not been fully implemented -- until Katrina. And there had been some hellacious storms since then.
His 85-year-old U.S. Navy veteran father came over to DuVernay’s house and they hunkered down. About 3 a.m., Katrina hit with full Category 3 force.
“It was the most impressive storm I’ve ever experienced,” he said, remembering the sounds of 75-foot-tall pine trees splitting and huge oak and cypress trees being uprooted as the wind-powered rain slapped the house in waves.
As daylight broke, everything was seemingly fine, DuVernay said, although there was a lot of tree and roof debris littering the neighborhood. There was no electricity, cell phone usage was minimal and radio reports were rumor and conjecture -- at best.
Water was about two-feet deep in the street, flowing south to north toward Lake Pontchartrain, the way it always did after a major storm.
Eerily, the water stopped. A moment of quiet. Then it started flowing the other way.
“I knew something had changed,” he recalled. “Maybe the levee had been topped.”
‘An Unreal Situation’
It was worse. The levee was breached. The water began to rise -- and kept on rising, over the curb, over the steps, into the house. The water went from ankle deep to waist deep in about an hour. Excrutiatingly.
DuVernay floated his boat out of the garage and, as the waters continued to rise, helped his dad and their two dogs from the second-story window into the boat, and they motored the “standard Louisiana fishing boat” through the floating debris, power lines and treetops -- an urban kind of Louisiana swamp -- toward higher ground.
As they navigated about a mile toward dry land, they picked up some stranded neighbors who were wading in neck-deep waters or clinging to floating furniture, roof gutters and windowsills.
Getting his dad safely to his home that night, DuVernay and a buddy got a few hours rest, then headed his boat back into the flooded neighborhood.
He would be making this trip dozens of times over the next day or so.
Seeing stranded people on their roofs and in their second-story rooms, he would pick them up and ferry them back to dry land.
Some would swim out to the boat, some would call from their perch in a treetop. Despite the dire and life-threatening circumstances “There was no panicky moment,” DuVernay recalled.
If the boat was full, DuVernay would tell the stranded to hang on -- he’d be back.
“Everyone was very calm, if not stunned,” he said. “It was an unreal situation. People were happy to wait their turn.
“The salty water was full of sewage along with everything everyone keeps in their garage -- paint, solvents, pesticides, gasoline, oil and junk. It was a corrosive soup,” DuVernay said.
As he motored back to the neighborhood, volunteers would sometimes accompany him in his fishing boat to provide assistance. One of the helpers was a freelance photographer dispatched by the Times-Picayune newspaper, and took photos that hit the world newswires. One of the photos he took of DuVernay rescuing a dog made National Geographic’s top Ten News Photos of 2005. Sometimes DuVernay and his helper would come across a derelict boat floating in the muck and commandeer it, forming an ersatz “rescue fleet.”
“It was a civilian rescue effort,” DuVernay said. “We would drop off our passengers on dry land and there would be private vehicles that began waiting for us at the drop off area. One woman set up a lean-to out of plastic and would take care of the dogs. There were a lot of pets that got rescued.
“Civilians would just take care of their fellow man, giving them blankets, food and water, and maybe take them to their home; I don’t know.” They were on their own.
Most of those being rescued would offer him money, water or food in thanks for the trip.
“I wouldn’t take their money,” he said. “But I would take their water for the passengers -- and their gasoline for the boat.”
Although weary, DuVernay and his volunteers continued into the darkness.
On Day Two, civilians began to be joined in the rescue effort by the officials. About a half-mile away from where DuVernay had been dropping off his passengers, he found that FEMA had set up a rescue triage area, near the I-610 bridge.
“Those guys had food, water, first aid and a line of buses to take people away,” he said. “I don’t care what anyone has heard, those guys were kicking butt. They were awesome.”
Airboats began to show up and ferry people, many of whom were elderly and infirm.
After the second day, exhausted and with the agencies taking over rescue efforts, DuVernay called a stand-down to his labors.
“I ended up with a full 18-gallon tank and 10 gallons to spare,” he said. “I also had more water than I started out with, too.”
The Life Line
Over the two days, he ferried over 100 stranded, fellow New Orleneans to safety, three, four or five, as many as nine at a time.
There was one rescue DuVernay will remember forever: Early into the first day, he cautiously maneuvered his boat to a second-story window for a rescue loading. A young mother with smiles of gratitude handed a basket over to DuVernay.
“When that basket with a six-week-old baby lying in it came out that window, I thought ‘this is why I’m here.’”
As the water receded, DuVernay found his house had suffered terribly as it marinated in 10 feet of the toxic floodwaters. It remained flooded for 10 days, and took another hit from Hurricane Rita less than a month later.
“Everything is soaked, broken, melted or corroded,” except for his boat, axe and chainsaw, DuVernay said from his office in Houston, where his Shell office has relocated.
He said after the insurance questions are answered, he will bulldoze his house -- and rebuild.
“It’s what we do.”