Leaving New Orleans 

Hundreds of evacuees have landed in Atlanta. Three share their stories.

For more than a week now, the Holiday Inn on Virginia Avenue near the airport has been a refuge for hundreds of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

The lucky ones arrived carrying suitcases; others not as fortunate came with little more than the clothes on their back. They are a disparate bunch, a gumbo of races and backgrounds that emerged, in some cases literally, from the water and wind and havoc that Katrina brought to the Gulf Coast.

Volunteers at the Holiday Inn have taken to calling operations at the hotel "The Parallel Universe." The label is fitting. The order that has evolved from the chaos is due, in almost every respect, not to the government but to efforts put forth by Atlantans, who saw a need and stepped in to fill it. It is grassroots activism at its most basic --and, perhaps for that very reason, its most effective.

Restaurant owners are trucking in meals for free. College students are answering phones and lending sympathetic ears to tales of the government's woeful bureaucracy. Doctors and psychologists are taking time off from their practices to crack backs, examine wounds and counsel evacuees.

Last week, CL sat down with a handful of New Orleans residents who only now are beginning to grasp the scope of what they've lost. Veronica Dendinger hails from the middle-class Gentilly neighborhood. Robert Moffett is from the east side, one of the hardest hit areas of the city. And Bill Champagne lives off St. Charles Avenue, one of the few areas of the city relatively untouched by the water damage. Their stories are in their own words, and were edited for length and clarity.

VERONICA DENDINGER, 67

click to enlarge Veronica Dendinger - JIM STAWNIAK

I live on the 2400 block of Verbena Street. That's been my house for over 40 years. I live alone. My husband passed a few years ago.

My neighbors had said they'd come get me and take me to the Superdome on Sunday, the day before the hurricane. Well, I waited and waited. I said to myself I'd better go get my dogs some water and get 'em some food in their bowls. I have five dogs -- Chuckie, Princess, Pepper, Lucky and Cocoa.

Six o'clock comes. I got the news on. Bob Breck with the weather, Channel 8. He says, "Katrina is gonna be a 5 Category. She's comin' down the mouth of the river. Whoever can get out better get out now, 'cause God help 'em, they won't get out again."

So I dialed 911. She tells me to dial the police department. I call them. They say they can't help me. I called 911 again. She gave me four ambulance numbers. I dialed all four. Nobody can help me. I called Channel 6, Channel 8, the mayor's office. Finally I called the district police station. I asked for a supervisor. I says, "Sir, I've got to get out of my house. Everybody's left me." He says, "Well, I don't think we can come get you." I said, "If you don't get someone over to my goddamned house and pick me up and bring me to the Dome, I've got a big mirror and a lipstick in my hand, and I'm gonna write, 'When you open this door and find me dead, it's the fault of the New Orleans Police Department.' "

He says, "Oh my God, don't do that." He says, "Go wait outside your front door."

My dogs thought I was goin' outside and comin' back in. They were probably lookin' for me to come back. But I didn't.

Oh, the Dome was hell, darlin'. Part of the roof opened and the rain came down on us. The air conditioners burnt. You could hear the wind. You could see the thunder and lightning flashing on the field. They brought us water and this Army food. I lived on peanut butter crackers.

Then the toilets got stopped up. We were walkin' ankle-deep in urine and feces. The stench! I ruined three dresses in those bathrooms. But as bad as it was, I heard the inside of the convention center was worse.

They moved me to a training facility near the Dome on a golf cart. I have a heart condition and diabetes. I had my bag of medicine and my wheelchair. They brought me to the New Orleans airport on Friday on a helicopter. There were hundreds of people. They had stretchers on the floor. They had people on the conveyor belts. They had people sittin' on the escalators. But the bathrooms were great.

The next morning, I wake up and my wheelchair's gone. Then they put me in another helicopter to fly me to Atlanta. We were on stretchers. I had people above me and below me. You ever see a side of beef hangin' in a refrigerator? That's how I felt. The air conditioning was dripping on me.

Finally, we got to Atlanta. They brought us to Georgia Tech. I got a new wheelchair. Tech was beautiful. I had blankets and pillows. I had eggs in the morning, milk and juice.

I got to the Holiday Inn on Monday [Sept. 5]. They say I'll be here for two weeks. They say from here I'm supposed to go to a high-rise for seniors.

I'm trying to get someone to check on my dogs. I don't know if I'll ever get 'em back.

I've got Allstate insurance, so they're going to build my house again. Or maybe I'll just take the money and get an efficiency apartment. But I want to go back.

ROBERT MOFFETT, 39

click to enlarge Robert Moffett - JIM STAWNIAK

Our house is on the east side of New Orleans. The night before the hurricane, I was taking precautions. I blew up an inflatable swimming pool we had. It's big, about 8 feet long. In the house was me, my wife, my two little grandkids, our two adopted children, my daughter and my two sons.

On Monday afternoon, the water was rising fast. I went outside and it was so deep I couldn't cross the street. I went back to my house and had to force the door open against the water. The water went in, pushed everybody back to the wall. Everything in the house started floating. The sofa floated across the floor.

We put the little ones on the pool and tried to get to a neighbor's apartment complex. It was still raining. The wind was blowing hard. The water had little whirlpools in it. It was trying to pull us in the opposite direction we were trying to go.

We finally made it to the apartment building. That night, I went back to my house. I slept on top of my dresser. It was floating. My family was in the apartment building. I had cut my thumb trying to break a window in my house.

The next day, the water was still rising. I got everybody on the roof. Later, a helicopter picked the kids up. They took 'em to the convention center. But the helicopter couldn't come for everybody 'cause somebody was shootin' at it.

My wife and I didn't get out till Wednesday. We finally got to the convention center. We were just walking around and we saw our kids. My wife jumped up in the air, and I jumped up. We were so happy.

There were about 20,000 people outside. We decided we were gonna get away from the crowd. We went and laid in the parking lot. Night came. I was worried about a stampede.

We kept hearing different stories, that buses were coming, that they weren't. I saw a guy pull up in an ice-cream truck. I said, "Can you help me and my family?" We got into the back of the truck. We started goin' across the river. I don't know where we were goin'. I didn't care. I just wanted to get away from there.

Some Jefferson Parish police pulled us over. They had shotguns aimed at everybody. They had the children with their hands in the air. And if you dropped your hands, they'd yell, "Nigger, get your hands up!" They said, "Nigger, you shoulda stayed yer ass on the other side!"

But one thing I gotta give 'em, they did bring us to safety. They brought us to a shelter in Jefferson Parish. The people there were real nice. They treated us well. They gave us some clothing.

Then they took us by bus to I-10, and there was like 40,000 people there. I showed the paramedics my hand. I'd been swimming around with it in all that water. That's how it got infected. They put me and my family into a helicopter and brought us to Atlanta. I was in the hospital. My hand was as big as my foot.

A woman at the hospital said she's gonna help my family. She asked us to come and live with them. She'd get my children in schools and get a job for me. I install air conditioning ducts.

It's a very caring city here. They're helping more than the system is.

I've got names of people who've helped me. I've got a list. Eventually, I'll get back to them and show 'em my appreciation. I had nothing at the time. I still have nothing. But they helped me along a lot further than I was. I just thank those people, and I wish you'd put something in your paper about that.

BILL CHAMPAGNE, 54

click to enlarge Bill Champagne - JIM STAWNIAK

I'm a New Orleans native. I live in an apartment in an uptown neighborhood, off of St. Charles Avenue. When the hurricane was coming, I decided to stay. So did my neighbors. We'd been through so many near misses.

But this hurricane, you could see its force. I was awed by it. You'd look out the window and see an oak tree 4 feet in circumference just bending in the wind.

The first night -- Monday night -- we had an idea of how weird things were gonna get. You'd walk down the streets and there were no lights. Nothing. I've never experienced darkness like that. To be in a part of the city that's always hustling and bustling and to not see one flicker of light anywhere? It was just mind-boggling.

The only communications we had was the radio. And the more we listened to the radio we realized how serious the situation was, the magnitude of the devastation.

Time was dragging 'cause of the heat. So we decided to walk down St. Charles and Napoleon. On our side of St. Charles, we didn't even get our toes wet. But the other side of St. Charles was a lot of water. The levee had been breached and the water was rising.

All the sudden, there was a call on the radio for people with flat boats to come into the city. When we got to Napoleon and St. Charles, the flat boats started arriving. I got in one. We started poling. We couldn't use outboard motors 'cause we didn't know what was underneath.

We picked people up from the second stories. It was sad. You'd see so many things that just break your heart. A lot of the people we picked up were elderly, infirm, people in wheelchairs, on oxygen. I thought after a day or two, we'd see a military presence, Coast Guard, somebody. Tuesday passed. Wednesday passed. Thursday passed. And still nobody. But I didn't hear much grumbling. People were just doing what they had to do.

A lot of us were thinking of staying. But it was very, very hot. We couldn't sleep at night. We couldn't shower. The mosquitoes, as the days passed with the stagnant water, started getting worse. And we started to get sick. I had severe diarrhea and stomach cramps. It was from going in and out of that water.

There was a police captain that we had all been working with. He said it was time for y'all to get out of here. There was no telling what we were catching in the water. They picked us up in a helicopter, brought us to the airport, and put us on a commercial plane and brought us to Dobbins [Air Reserve Base] in Marietta. They brought me to Piedmont Hospital. They gave me some IV drips to hydrate me.

I plan on going home, eventually. But they're going to have to tear down a lot of the city. I hope the government lets the city rebuild. It's a hell of a thing. The problem has always been so vast, the poverty. And the gap between the haves and the have-nots is just getting wider. Some way or another, society is gonna have to deal with it.

It's so unbelievable. I don't have a job. I don't have a house. Hell, I don't have a city. When you lose a whole goddamned city, it's just hard to grasp. It's just way too much to process at one time.

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