After the Storm

Paddling becomes more than just paddling when the waters rise and erase your life. The sudden freedom to move, to help, to document, to protect your home, and to escape, vaults the value of riveted aluminum and molded plastic to new levels. That different kind of paddling, a journey into pure anarchy in the aftermath of our nation’s most destructive natural disaster, changed six lives forever.

May 21, 2015 By

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

There wasn’t anything natural about what Michael Knight witnessed. He walks out from his fenced-in yard, into an empty street and looks west, across a few short blocks of abandoned lots, to the Industrial Canal. He locks in on the spot where a quarter-mile length of concrete floodwall breached early on a Monday morning, August 29, 2005, making Knight one of New Orleans’ first residents to see his home swallowed up in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. His stone-cold demeanor and long, bloodshot stare convey the horrors that torture his sleep, things he’s seen but won’t speak about. What he will tell you about, however, comes right back as if seven years never passed.

“It was like that,” he says, snapping into a kung fu stance. “Like a big ole tidal wave, houses and cars coming this way. This shit happened so fast it was crazy.”

Still Standing: Andrew Sartin, aka Michael Knight, outside his Lower Ninth Ward home on North Roman Street. Photo: Robert Zaleski.

The torrent rushed from the breach as Knight, then a 45-year-old mechanic, hurriedly loosened his three boats to float with the rising water. In 40 minutes by his count, the stop sign on the corner was gone, underwater. Knight watched from his roof, where with a few family members and friends, he would stay for the next seven days. But with those boats, he certainly wasn’t staying put.

As Katrina bore down on New Orleans that Sunday evening, McCusker gathered with colleagues to weather and report on the hurricane from the city’s historic daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, where he’d worked as a photojournalist for 19 years. Before he left, he threw his Wilderness Systems Manteo into the bed of his truck. Earlier that summer, he’d bought the 12-foot plastic kayak from a friend for $250, and used it occasionally on the bayous and the London Avenue Canal near his home in New Orleans’ vast Gentilly neighborhood. If there was any street flooding, McCusker figured, that old red kayak might come in handy.

On the opposite side of City Park, McCusker’s friend and colleague at the Times-Picayune, Sports Editor David Meeks, spent Sunday prepping his Lakeview house before heading into the newsroom. Mayor Ray Nagin had just issued the first-ever mandatory evacuation order to the city’s 400,000 residents, predicting that the storm surge could topple the levee system. Meeks put plenty of food out for his two cats, filled the bathtub with water, and then turned his attention to Carson, an aging Australian shepherd mix that had belonged to his late father. The dog had never been up a flight of stairs, so even though Meeks quips that he’s “paid to be skeptical” of information like Nagin’s warning, he spent some training time dragging old Carson up and down the stairs, just in case.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall southeast of New Orleans early that Monday morning with a 20-foot surge of water and sustained 100-plus mph winds. Ten inches of rain fell on the city through the night. Though the weather service had downgraded Katrina to a Category 3 hurricane, the storm still carried a Cat 5 surge, which funneled up shipping canals and into the city’s sprawling system of levees and floodwalls. McCusker gathered his cameras and began to work. Standing in thigh-deep water on Broad Street, he photographed four residents wading out a plastic tub with five toddlers huddled inside.

The Long View: John McCusker, under the Broad Street Interstate 10 overpass where the journey of his red kayak began seven years ago. Photo: Robert Zaleski.

The winds had died, but the storm had already knocked out the city’s power and inundated Knight’s neighborhood in the Ninth Ward. McCusker’s own street was under nine feet of water. But with three levee systems in place and further flooding forecast only east of the city, McCusker and his Times-Picayune colleagues figured they were fine to however, water surrounded the building up to front steps.

McCusker grabbed his kayak. The water was still filling the sewer system and trying to find bottom. “There were currents everywhere,” McCusker recalls. Paddling over downed branches and narrowly avoiding being pinned against a fence, he beached the kayak on the west end of the nearby Broad Street I-10 overpass, which was “like a perfect boat ramp.” From that high ground, he photographed the growing masses of refugees taking shelter on the overpass. No one knew what was happening beyond their own field of vision, but rumors flashed through the crowd. McCusker heard that inmates from the Orleans Parish Prison, on the east side of the overpass, were on the loose. Worrying that someone would take his unattended kayak, he paddled back to the newspaper. Before he could dry off and download his images, Times-Picayune bosses ordered the staff to load up the delivery trucks and evacuate immediately.

“We were in a minute-by-minute situation,” Meeks says. “There’s no information, there’s no anything.” But as the trucks crossed the Interstate 90 bridge over the Mississippi River and out of town, Meeks could see dry ribbons of street paralleling the river’s crescent curve through Uptown. That was all the information about the flood’s extent that he needed.

“We were already angry that we were being forced to leave, and we concocted a plot right then that we were going to stay in the city,” Meeks says. “I got my editor in the parking lot where we regrouped and said, ‘You got to let me stay, I know there’s dry streets.’ His only rule was that it had to be all volunteers.” Meeks, McCusker and a small, motley mix of reporters, ranging from the art and the music critic to the editorial page writer and the cops reporter, piled into a commandeered delivery truck and headed back into the city.

At the first exit over the bridge back, they found a group of police officers at the Tchoupitoulas Street Walmart, and pressed them for information.

1, Michael Knight. 2, John McCusker/The Times-Picayune. 3, David Meeks. 4, Robin Tanner/Gipson Blanchard. 5, John Hazlett. Blue areas – flooded land. Red lines – compromised levee.

Map by Dan Swenson/Courtesy The Times-Picayune

“They said, ‘We have no idea, our radios are down,’” recalls Mike Perlstein, the criminal justice reporter. McCusker photographed other officers walking out of the store with armloads of DVDs. Inside, the looting had begun. “You’re talking about shelves crashing down, with little old ladies getting their Metamucil and moms grabbing diapers next to people grabbing booze and ransacking the pharmacy,” Perlstein says. He approached another veteran cop he knew from his beat, who told him what was already evident: It was every man for himself.

The reporters had a breaking ‘Cops Looting’ story, but no tools to publish it. Meeks and Perlstein drove the truck as close as they could get to the newspaper, and then started wading through the dark, oily chest-deep moat that surrounded the building. Prying a maintenance door open, they entered the deserted newsroom, which Meeks says “looked like the end of Planet of the Apes when they go back and find New York City.” They found McCusker’s kayak and loaded it with newsgathering essentials: cameras, laptops, notepads, power cords, battery packs, and most importantly, AC-to-DC car socket adapters. After two gear runs, with daylight fading, they retreated to higher ground. But there was one thing Meeks had to know about: Carson.

They drove west on the eastbound lanes of the deserted I-10 until the highway disappeared underwater. They decided Perlstein would wait on a nearby railroad trestle as Meeks set off on the two-mile paddle to his home with a life jacket, one bottle of water and the keys to his house. It was the second kayak trip of his life, in 95-degree heat and 10 feet of water that concealed all but the tops of street signs. Meeks traced the submerged interstate, paddling to the same exit he drove every day, now surrounded by a maze of rooftops. “I knew how to control [the kayak], but the environment I was in was unlike anything you can imagine,” Meeks says. “The floodwater is moving, draining toward the lowest point in the city, heading downtown at a good clip and I’m going against it.”

The next gutter he grabbed was his own. “I finally see my house and that makes me start crying,” says Meeks, who tied up to the drain, climbed out, used the paddle to smash in his front window and then dove into the black water. He resurfaced inside, bumping into his iMac computer as he gulped air in the dark, narrow space between the waterline and the ceiling. He swam into the kitchen—“everything’s moving, you’re hitting stuff constantly”—where something grabbed and pulled him under. He struggled, ripping his life jacket free of what he discovered was his refrigerator door, floating face up. He found the rear stairs and there was Carson, barking like crazy, legs covered in mud, waiting for him up top. “The neutered town cat was sleeping on my daughter’s bed like nothing happened.”

Blanchard and Tanner paddled out after searching for Tanner’s dog on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005. Photos: AP Photo/Bill Haber.
Seven years later, the pair returns to Broadway and Zimple, at the corner of the Tulane University campus (No. 4 on opposite map). Photos: Robert Zaleski

As the sun went down, one thought gnawed at Mike Perlstein: “It’s dark and Dave’s dead.” He’d spent the afternoon on the railroad trestle, reporting on the influx of Cajun fishermen who had rushed to the city and performed the flood’s first rescues, dropping helpless and confused residents off on the trestle. Now, with no water and no sign of government officials, with no sense of whether the flooding would worsen, and no idea whether his friend was alive or dead, Perlstein had to make a call. “I make one last run up to the railroad trestle and see this silhouette figure coming in on one of these fishing boats,” he says. “It’s Dave with this crazy pale look, dragging that kayak behind him with the dog on board.”

Another lonely dog was barking in a garage in the Broadmoor neighborhood. Robin Tanner had left Pork Chop, his Rottweiler-pit mix, in the garage of his small landscaping business. As the sun went down that Tuesday, state police had stopped Tanner from re-entering the city to rescue his dog. On Wednesday, with 80 percent of the city flooded and a mandatory curfew in place, Tanner returned with his nephew Gipson Blanchard. They sweet- talked their way past the police and across the bridge, then rode bikes in along the river side of the levee. They rode past the National Guard, past fleeing residents, and past the Oak Street Rite Aid where looters emerged with loaded carts “like a jubilee holiday.” They pedaled faster, past Blanchard’s apartment into neck-deep water, and then they started swimming. “You could see that oil rainbow in the water and I was thinking, ‘There’s no way I can make this,’” Blanchard says. “And then some dude came by in a boat and said he’d seen another boat tied up and we should see if we could get that boat.”

They found the small canoe near Nashville and Claiborne. It was barely big enough for the both of them, but there were paddles inside. They clambered aboard, and had a brief moment to marvel at the surreal setting. “To avoid running into the tops of cars, that was crazy,” Blanchard says. “It looked like the canals of Venice of something, 
bizarre, but you want to see it man—one of the most awesome spectacles I’ve ever witnessed first-hand in my life.” Tanner wasn’t quite prepared to witness the next sight: the business that he’d put decades of work into destroyed, his six trucks underwater. That wasn’t his main concern, though. He just wanted to find Pork Chop. “I went in the building and I started getting scared I’d succumb to the gas fumes, because I could breathe but started feeling funny, and realized Pork Chop couldn’t be in there—he must’ve gotten out—but I kept calling him.”

In Deep: John Hazlett on his street in Northwest Carrollton, with the photo he shot of the scene from the seat of his kayak. Photo: Robert Zaleski.

As the dejected pair paddled back toward high ground, they came across a woman standing dazed in waist-high water. Tanner and Blanchard pulled her into the canoe and paddled to Memorial Medical Center. The hospital was 10 feet under, without electricity or running water, and thronged with people seeking help. “They had a makeshift dock that reminded me of that scene in Apocalypse Now, where the guy comes in from the firefight and asks who’s in charge and the guy looks at him and says, ‘Ain’t it you?’” Tanner says. “They said they couldn’t take any more people, but we dropped her off. We didn’t know anything about the mercy killings going on there then,” he says, referring to allegations that surfaced in 2006 regarding treatment of the hospital’s 35 patients who died in the aftermath. He never learned what became of the woman.

On Tuesday, Sept. 6, more than a week after Michael Knight first witnessed the vanguard of the impossible, John Hazlett couldn’t wait any longer. He had evacuated to Baton Rogue, and could get no information about the extent of flooding in his Northwest Carrollton neighborhood. So he loaded a friend’s Necky Santa Cruze kayak into his truck and, armed only with his camera, paddled into still- flooded New Orleans. The waters had begun to recede, and the city was in a slow transition from desperate first-response to military occupation. By this time, Hazlett knew, most residents had escaped the city, gathered and been evacuated from the Superdome, or died in the flood. Those who remained were either military personnel or survivalist stayers. Both groups were well-armed and on edge. Everyone had heard the rumors of looters traveling by boat. Hazlett, a University of New Orleans professor and father of two, was shaking through his strokes: “I was really, really nervous that somebody was going to start shooting.”

“I was really, really nervous that somebody was going to start shooting.”

He saw no one. The city was silent as a tomb. “No birds, no electricity, no animals, no sounds of any people, just utter, complete silence and windless water like glass with oil all over it,” Hazlett recalls. “Dead trees, big maples totally leafless, windows smashed out of homes. It was eerie, ghostly, and beautiful in a way.” When the occasional helicopter broke the silence, he ducked behind a half-submerged bus, or under the mask of a tall tree.

Hazlett’s house is situated on a knoll of high ground, and when he arrived he found that only his basement had flooded. His neighbors were not so lucky. He took photos of every house on the block, planning to email them to neighbors suddenly spread across the country. When his camera battery died, Hazlett paddled straight into the military encounter he had hoped to avoid. “It was one of those huge military vehicles with the tall tires, they all had guns, about 10 of them on top, and asked me where I was going,” Hazlett says. “I told them I was heading to Chicago, we all had a laugh, even though it was actually true.”

Hazlett wasn’t the only one who felt a responsibility to document Katrina’s aftermath. When Perlstein and Meeks heard over the delivery truck’s radio that the flooding could deepen into other parts of town, they packed up the kayak, McCusker, and seven other reporters and retreated across the bridge, where they spent a sweltering, sleepless night in McCusker’s childhood home in Algiers, which remained dry. Over the next few days, they moved the operation base from dry house to house, fanning across the flooded city, chasing false rumors and filling their notebooks with stories of desperation, fear, resilience and generosity, then passing the information by land-lines to colleagues manning an impromptu copy desk in Baton Rouge. Stories were breaking everywhere. “It was like The Lord of the Rings where Frodo and the guys go off and do this and Gandalf goes and does this and eventually they all met up, and they all have what they went to do,” McCusker says.

David Meeks paddles John McCusker’s kayak west along the empty I-10 toward his Lakeview home. Photo: Mike Perlstein.

The first thing arts and entertainment writer Doug MacCash did was to take McCusker’s kayak and paddle it to his house in Mid-City to retrieve an old plastic canoe he had there. With the canoe in the truck, the team had another valuable news gathering tool. MacCash paddled to the New Orleans Museum of Art to assess the damage there. Meeks took the canoe back to the paper for more supplies, and paddled in to talk property rights with the folks in Mid-City who refused to leave. The newspapermen used the canoe and McCusker’s kayak to report on the extent of the flooding and investigate some of the 53 breaches to the flood protection system.

Perlstein paddled the canoe to check on his Uptown house, sliding past a lonely island of high ground occupied by a payday loan office with a horse tied to it. He used it to access the abandoned 7th District Police Station in Eastern New Orleans, and took a photographer aboard to document the spray-painted Xs spreading across every house in the city, as various agencies marked a grid demarcating the rescue team, date, hazards present, and number of victims. “Without the kayak and the canoe we would not have been able to do the job, period. They were critical,” Meeks says. “We would have been totally screwed.”

By Friday, four days after the flood, Meeks got his hands on a box of the first newspapers published since the storm, an eight-page storm edition printed outside the city. He took them downtown to the convention center and got mobbed. “People went nuts. It was like a sign of normalcy that the city was coming back,” he says, noting that he also kept a stack in the truck to grease the skids at checkpoints manned by bored National Guardsmen. Meeks, his dog Carson, and a few of the remaining reporters finally relocated to some damaged rooms in the downtown Sheraton as the city slowly drained. The days passed in a blur, with the reporters focused single-mindedly on their news gathering. “There’s not many times in your life where you’re involved with something where you know that no matter what else you accomplish in life, this is going to be mentioned in your obituary,” Meeks says. “You learn what’s important and how to get by and get the job done.”

Three days later, on Friday, Sept. 2, Meeks hands out the first print edition of the Times-Picayune to information-starved crowds at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Photos: Mike Perlstein.

Back in the Ninth Ward, Michael Knight had a singular focus as well: saving his neighbors. As water filled the immediate neighborhood to a depth he estimates at just shy of 20 feet, Knight watched from his roof as the inflowing current carried cars and entire houses past him. Knight’s own house came off its foundation, and was held in place by a single galvanized gas pipe. The boats also held, tethered to mature trees shielding the west side of his lot.

When the current finally settled, Knight and his work partner, Freddie Hicks, climbed aboard his V-hulled motorboat. They went first to the Baptist church around the corner on Flood Street, where they helped people climb through a second-story window into the boat. The water was still rising, so Knight took them and other stranded neighbors to the tallest structure around, the three- story Martin Luther King Elementary School three blocks from his house.

“I had like 15 to 20 people on [the boat] sometimes. You couldn’t leave nobody, because that’s all I did,” says Knight. He found water, candles and a few cans of food at a looted-out dollar store on the other side of the Claiborne Bridge. On his larger flats boat, and with more water from a helicopter drop, Knight drove rescue trips into the nights, haunted by distant cries traveling across the pitch black. “You could hear people holler all night, you could see a cigarette lighter five or six blocks away,” he says. “If they had a cigarette lighter, I could save them. Better keep clicking it. That cigarette lighter go off, you lost in the cause.”

“You could hear people holler all night, you could see a cigarette lighter five to six blocks away—if they had a lighter, I could save them.”

By the fifth day, Knight says he had transported at least 300 people to the school. “I had to go find somebody,” Knight says. “The school started smelling bad and I didn’t have enough water and enough food to keep feeding everybody.” Knight contacted some National Guardsmen assembled on the far side of the nearby bridge. “I told them how many people I had, they said, ‘Yeah, right.’ I said, ‘Y’all need a few boats to come get these people.’” Knight, Hicks, his brother-in-law Reginald “Whodo” Jackson, two other friends, and a man Knight knew only as “All Night Shorty” stayed for a few more days. They had a generator and a window fan to get them through the hot nights, and a bucket of Skin-so- Soft to keep the mosquitos at bay during the even hotter days.

“We couldn’t go nowhere, where we going to? The whole city’s underwater,” Knight says. “We couldn’t go out. I just lived on the roof.” On the seventh day, Knight and Hicks finally left the roof, driven away by the mosquitoes and a stench “like nothing but death.” They left the city in a canoe they had found, paddling with scrap lumber to the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, where they left it and started walking. Eventually they found a ride out of the city, to Knight’s sister’s place in Atlanta.

Knight was already headed back when Hurricane Rita hit two weeks later. He likes to say he was the last to leave the Ninth Ward and the first back. He started shoveling the thick layer of mud out his yard, one wheelbarrow load at time. As he salvaged what he could from his home down to the sheet rock, much of the neighborhood was still inundated. “When I cleaned all this up, they were still getting bodies from back there. People couldn’t take that, everybody left,” he says. “It looked like a ghost town when you ride around at night.”

A Week Later: Seven days after the floodwaters destroyed his neighborhood, Michael Knight (stern), and Freddie Hicks finally paddled out of the Lower Ninth Ward. Photo: John Davenport (AP Photo/San Antonio Express-News). Cont. on

Seven years later, much of it still does. Tires are still strewn on every heavily rutted street in the blocks surrounding Knight, homes marked with the Xs are untouched, down to sun-bleached toys on the stoops—a perfect 2005 time-capsule, overgrown with weeds. Abandoned boats still line the corners. Knight’s lot is alive with activity, chickens graze and his sons work on a couple of restored Chevy Novas. He turned down government offers to buy out his lot, and didn’t think twice about leaving, preferring to stay right on North Roman where he “can see trouble coming” just as he did on that Monday morning. “I still think about [the flood], but I don’t worry about it,” he says as he walks down the street again, toward the rebuilt floodwall, bending down to pick up a few fresh pecans.

For Meeks, now a sports editor at USA Today, and Perlstein, the managing editor at New Orleans Channel 4 Investigates team, Katrina’s aftermath was the seminal moment in their careers. They performed a unique and desperately needed service, by as Perlstein puts it, “going into flooded neighborhoods and producing stories that went against the grain of what everyone else put out—that the city was some violent battleground of killing and rape.” For their efforts, the hodgepodge staff of the Times-Picayune won two Pulitzer Prizes, for public service and breaking news reporting.

But the awards were a lone win. The reporters were a part of New Orleans, and in an unmatched catastrophe where Louisiana lost 1,836 lives, everyone in New Orleans lost something. Tanner lost much of his home, his dog, and his business, though he maintains a positive outlook that the flood set him “back to his roots,” as a one-man, one- truck operation. Hazlett’s loss included his marriage. He was among the first to return that fall, camping out with his neighbors, working on their homes, bonding over communal meals or sharing MREs at the nearby school. His wife and two kids stayed behind in Chicago. Many of his neighbors have rebuilt or moved on. ‘For Sale’ signs pepper his street, and he now guides kayak tours to raise awareness about the drastic plight of Louisiana’s devastated wetlands, which are crucial to the city’s natural storm protection.

Home Again: John McCusker paddles his Wilderness Systems Manteo— crucial to the Times- Picayune’s coverage of the 2005 flood event—up the London Avenue Canal near his Gentilly home. Photo: Robert Zaleski.

For McCusker, the event was a true moment of departure, “like taking your life back to zero again.” He came home to an apocalyptic, silt-covered “moonscape where everything was monochromatic, no color because all the plant life was dead.” He saved his cats, but the only possessions he could recognize and recover were two lone champagne flutes. “On August 28, 2005, I went to sleep in a neighborhood with people I had lived with for 15 years. That was the last time I saw a lot of them,” he says, noting that of his neighborhood’s 23 families, he is one of three that moved back. The losses became too much to process. “When you’ve been affected by trauma, and tried to get your mind around the wholesale destruction of an American city and humanitarian crisis on the level that we had by Wednesday night, your brain starts doing things you wouldn’t imagine. One of the things my brain did is that it shut down and refused to read. I forgot how to read, which seems incomprehensible. I’ve read one book since Katrina.”

The incomprehensible didn’t end during there. A month after McCusker moved home, he was robbed, losing the hard drive containing the photos he shot that Tuesday morning on the Broad Street overpass. His wife died unexpectedly in 2010, and in 2012 the Times-Picayune laid him off, as the 175-year-old paper scaled back its weekly print run and trimmed its staff accordingly. McCusker, who has written a book, gives historic jazz tours, and now shoots for the Baton Rouge Advocate, still sees that levee every time he opens his door. At least, he says ruefully, he has a door. “It’s more than most. There’s things in life you get over and things that you live with, and I think this is the latter.”

And he still has that old red kayak, back at home after a stint in the Newseum’s “Covering Katrina” exhibit in Washington, D.C. On a cool fall day, he walks it up the levee and glides in peace along the glassy canal, looking out toward downtown.

From Canoe & Kayak, March 2013 Issue | Get the Latest Issue

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