One year ago today, my friend Greg Beuerman awoke in New Orleans to discover that the previous day's hurricane had become a grisly horror story come true, rather than merely a one-day scare.
For the next four days, Greg became what so many other Louisianans became, yet what so few are credited with being: heroes. I relate his story not merely to credit him (although I do indeed intend to do that, too), but to help set the record straight about the vast majority of the fellow citizens of my wonderful native city of New Orleans.
Until Dateline NBC devoted a moving, accurate, and much-appreciated hour to it last Friday, far too little national attention had been paid to the prevalence of community spirit, of neighbor helping neighbor, in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in our nation's history.
It was Dateline, though, that made me want to write about Greg, because Greg was at the scene -- Lindy Boggs Medical Center -- that Dateline described in its heart-wrenching account of doctors and critically ill patients working against the odds to survive without fresh running water and without electricity to keep the lights on, the rooms cool, the refrigerated medicines safe, the ventilators operating and the dialysis machines in order.
Greg Beuerman is a one-time executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party (two decades ago) who now runs a consulting firm that specializes in crisis communications management. With Katrina bearing down on New Orleans, Greg figured that at least one member of his firm should stay on site in case any of his many port- and Gulf-based clients needed post-storm help. By invitation, he set up shop at a famously sturdy apartment building that once housed a plant of the American Can Company. The storm passed on a Monday, and that night he and others happily played cards on the roof and tried to guess when the then-only-mild flooding of their parking lot would go away.
Of course, Greg woke up the next morning to a steadily worsening disaster. Water, water everywhere, of course (and not a drop to drink, or to bathe in). And no phone or other contact with the outside world.
Two Cajuns from Jeanerette, La., like angels of mercy, showed up in bass boats. They had driven to the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, slept in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and then boated in on Tuesday morning to see if they could help. Greg hitched a ride, and the three of them spent all day trying to rescue people from a mostly African-American neighborhood inundated with floodwaters. One problem: Confusion. The rumor spread that National Guardsmen would be coming to pick up people on the Dumaine Street Bridge over Bayou St. John, so that's where Greg and the Cajuns took a bunch of them -- but the rumor was wrong.
"After three or four hours of those folks standing out there," Greg said, "it became apparent that there were no National Guard troops coming and it became apparent these people had given up shaded quarters just to stay in the blazing hot sun. They eventually all went back to their houses to wait for a verifiable rescue resource. It turned out that just moving them from one place to another was not really a rescue; it was the difference between motion and progress."
But what became clear in the course of that progress-less motion was that a sense of community, not of savagery, reigned:
"Overwhelmingly, the people that I interacted with were grateful, cooperative, and happy to have some help and some leadership. OVERwhelmingly. The outpouring of gratitude, for what a run-of-the-mill volunteer like me was trying to do, was just tremendous. The first day we had people offering us cold drinks and food and shade, giving back to us what they could afford to give. At first it was obvious there were lots of teenage boys and men who should have been secondary for rescue who were getting in front of older people and sick people -- but we put a stop to that quickly. We took women with small children and the sick first -- and once we asked people to do it our way, everybody quickly seemed to understand and very quickly there were no complaints.
"And there was no shortage of sporadic assistance. I would say there were hundreds of people who saw something that needed doing, and they did it for a period of time. We had one particularly large woman, maybe 400 pounds, and we had a great deal of difficulty lifting her off her porch. People who were watching jumped into water up to their necks and swam over to help us. There were a lot of folks who pitched in when they saw something specific that needed to be done."
Greg went back to the Can Company that night, hoping things would get better the next day. No luck. And the Cajuns from Jeanerette had to leave. What to do?
Well, the Lindy Boggs hospital was several long blocks away. Surely it needed assistance. So that's where Greg went -- wading, slogging, through a horrid, potentially dangerous, chest-deep stew of water and muck. As Dateline reported, it was on that day, Wednesday, that helicopter rescue teams finally began to reach the hospital. Or, rather, to reach a grassy bank, two blocks from the hospital, that bordered Bayou St. John. A doctor had commandeered a nearby skiff, and hospital staff were trying to ferry patients -- some of them critically ill -- and their family members to the sporadically arriving choppers. But the scene at the grassy rise was bedlam. It needed organization. And few healthy bodies were available to unload the patients from the skiff, onto the rise, to wait for the choppers. Nor to help the firemen on the choppers to load the patients into the whirlibirds. Well, Greg handles crises for a living. This seemed like a job for him.
All day long it was unload the patients, load them up, organize them, try to enlist healthy neighborhood people to help the sick instead of trying to board the helicopters themselves, unload more patients...and then, in what Dateline was later to describe in heartbreaking detail, came the sickening shock of shocks, what Greg called "an especially disheartening time." The firemen wanted to keep flying all night, but their superiors ordered them away at dark. At least 30 patients, some of them in what Greg called "really bad shape," had thought they were getting out that day. Instead, they had to be reloaded, in the twilight, onto the skiff, ferried back to the dark and sweltering hospital, and unloaded there. That, too, became Greg's job. It was late, late, really late when, with nothing else to do, Greg waded back through the grimy water back to the Can Company.
Only, on Thursday morning, to go back to the hospital again as the choppers finally returned.
"Some of the special challenges were moving people in wheelchairs out of the very small boats," he said, "and picking them up and keep them above the water level. It might take four people to move one patient but there was always somebody standing around who would jump in to help a patient."
Nobody in particular stood out as a hero, because dozens and dozens of people, at least for a few minutes here and there, performed deeds of compassion and altruism and, yes, heroism. And, Greg said, in all that time he saw not a single act of violence.
Finally, late Thursday afternoon, the hospital evacuation was complete, except for a few security guards. Back to the Can Company for Greg. As at the hospital, that building too had no running water, no electricity, no communications. But at least he had a dry room and a bed. Outside, though, there still were neighborhood people stranded, and still there were choppers coming to rescue them on Friday.
"I guess I slacked off Friday," Greg said, "and only worked half the day. There was still at least one security guard left at the hospital. He finally convinced me to go back to the Can Company and get my plastic bag with the limited number of clothes I had left, and to get on a helicopter at 1:30 or so." The chopper dropped him off at New Orleans' Louis Armstrong Airport. Somehow that night he found a flight to Atlanta. From there, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, to Nashville, where relatives lived.
Meanwhile a few hours later, a helicopter trying to land -- right on the same grassy strip by Bayou St. John where Greg had loaded people all week -- crashed. Nobody was killed, but the big bird lay there, as mangled metal, for weeks. One more piece of wreckage, a symbol of the city that lay in ruins around it.
SUCH WAS THE REAL STORY of most of the city of New Orleans. The truth is, it was not a city that forgot to care. As lawless thugs marauded in some places, New Orleanians in all sorts of other neighborhoods, people who for whatever reasons chose not to evacuate, looked for stranded people to help, pets to save, and neighbors' property to look after. My brother Haywood was one of those Good Samaritans. As Greg Beuerman described, there were countless others.
Yes, the floodwalls -- poorly engineered 40 years ago by the federal Army Corps of Engineers -- fell apart. The city government fell apart. The state government fumbled and bumbled. The federal government -- with the exception of the wondrously salvific Coast Guard and some Fish & Wildlife personnel -- was utterly, stupendously inept. And the Bush administration, foolishly and cold-heartedly, later was to kill the only viable plan for sensible redevelopment -- a free-market-oriented plan, sponsored by a conservative congressman, at that.
But don't ever say that New Orleanians, white and black alike, didn't serve each other and save each other. Floodwaters recede. The Greg Beuermans of the city do return. Jazz musicians still play. And the river rolls past in a graceful arc, bordered by comparatively higher ground close to its banks -- ground just high and dry enough to beckon adventurous souls to rebuild and, yes, to really live.