Blown away — One woman's tale of the rescue effort that wasn't

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:53

    It was supposed to be a romantic weekend for the West Milford couple. Their 9-year-old daughter was visiting her grandmother, so Natalie Pilote and her husband, Gary Prescott, thought they'd take advantage of their time alone by planning a short getaway. Although Katrina was forming, reports had it heading toward Florida, so Gary and Natalie chose New Orleans as their destination. They arrived at their hotel in the French Quarter on Friday and on Saturday morning set off on a guided tour. Their tour guide suggested they follow the Saturday tour with the scheduled Sunday tour, as bad weather was expected. So, Saturday afternoon, while Louisiana residents were warned there was a state of emergency and many began to leave the city, Natalie and Gary and some of their fellow travelers were touring a swamp, out of touch with the media and unaware of Katrina's strength and path. By the time New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city on Sunday, there were no buses, trains, or cabs to be found. And the airport had closed the night before. Most of the hotel guests were long gone. Having caught up with news coverage on TV, the couple was scared and bewildered. They looked to the staff of the Hotel Monteleone for guidance. They were told there wasn't going to be any transportation available until after the storm, but that the hotel had survived many storms. "We went outside on Sunday. No one was there, everything was barricaded," said Pilote. "It looked like a ghost town. I was waiting for the tumbleweeds to come blowing through." Throughout the day, locals, hotel employees and their families began arriving at the hotel. By dinner time the 300 remaining hotel guests were joined by 1200 new arrivals. Then, Katrina blew into town. Although there was a tremendous amount of damage, and several levees had given way, much of New Orleans — and the French Quarter in particular — had not flooded. "We were expecting transportation. But nothing happened. The police were guarding the stores," said Natalie. In addition, Natalie said, it was highly frustrating to realize that the police, the army and the National Guard clearly had no communication with one another and had no idea what the others were doing and/or who's orders they were following. But late Monday, the levee holding back Lake Ponchartrain was breached in two places and millions of gallons of water poured into the city. What the tourists had no way of knowing was that there was only a small band of dry land in the whole city — from a part of the French Quarter through parts of uptown. Tuesday was spent waiting and wondering. Where are the helicopters? Where are the boats or buses? Wednesday the federal government ordered an evacuation. The 1200 locals in the hotel were escorted out of the hotel at gunpoint and sent to find their way on foot to either the convention center or the Superdome. The remaining 300 tourists were told that 10 buses had been contracted to come from Alabama and take them out of New Orleans, but it would cost $25,000. After they ponied up, they were told to get their luggage and wait in the lobby. They waited from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. at which point they were told to vacate the hotel. Out on the sidewalk, sitting on their luggage they waited four more hours. That's when they learned that the buses they had paid $25,000 for had been commandeered, filled with people and sent to Baton Rouge, where they were denied entrance into the city. The buses were headed to Houston and had no plans to come back to Hotel Monteleone for the stranded tourists. The hotel manager let them back in the building for the night. Thursday morning the staff prepared an enormous amount of food for breakfast (they had started rationing food immediately after the storm). "Eat all you can," they were told, "because there won't be any more food." "But no one was hungry," said Natalie. "It was like we were at The Last Supper — we felt we had been sentenced to death." Told to vacate the hotel by noon, the couple hooked up with three others couples with whom they had formed a bond and, carrying their luggage, set off to walk to the convention center. Halfway there, they were told by National Guardsmen not to go to the center because it wasn't safe. They were advised to walk to the bridge and over it out of the city. It started to rain. They passed the convention center where there were thousands of people outside because the conditions inside were untenable. Natalie describes it, "We crossed a sea of people — all screaming at us — ‘Where are you going? What are you doing? Do you know anything?' People started following us and by the time we got to the ramp there were thousands of people following us. But there were police cars blocking the way. They had guns and fired warning shots into the air. They were screaming, ‘Nobody will cross this bridge on foot!'" The group wasn't given any explanation as to why they couldn't cross the bridge, but they saw an occasional vehicle cross it. By then the rain had intensified and the only advice they were given was to try walking out of the city via the highway. Along the way they passed people trying to make shelters out of the cement highway dividers. "It smelled like feces everywhere. We kept seeing people who were leaving the Superdome. They said there had been no food or water or buses there for four days. They said it was hell in there ...complete madness. At one point we did see an army truck. It stopped and they just threw food and water out into a big pile and left. I think they were afraid for their lives." The little group of eight tourists was still together and they realized they needed to find a safe place. They discussed stealing a car so they could go over the bridge, or breaking into an office building. Luckily for them, a pick-up truck was driving into the city. All eight gave the driver all the money they had in exchange for letting them ride in the truck bed out of New Orleans. They landed in a shelter outside the city, where they were able to call for help from a friend. The friend drove two hours to pick them up, two hours home, and the following day drove them four more hours to the Houston airport. "We are so happy to be home," said Natalie. "And so grateful to be alive."