About 24 hours before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast Capt. John Bryson of the New Orleans Police Department was in a McDonald's in the city's Ninth Ward buying a cup of coffee. Next to him in line was a woman and her four children; the youngest was a one-year-old baby.
Bryson spent the next few minutes making a futile attempt to persuade this lady to evacuate. "I begged her to leave," says Bryson, commander of the NOPD's Fifth District, which encompasses the Ninth Ward and the Lower Ninth Ward.
She dismissed Bryson's concern with tragic diffidence. "She told me it was going to miss us," he says. Bryson argued and pleaded, but she didn't hear him. He picked up his coffee, started to leave, and played his final card. "I told her, 'This is a killer storm. So please do us a favor. Write your name, Social Security number, and an emergency contact number on your arm and on your children's arms. There's a strong possibility that none of you will survive it.' She looked at me disbelieving. I said, 'Ma'am, this is a killer storm.'"
Bryson doesn't know what happened to the lady in the McDonald's. He prays that she and her babies made it out alive. But more than a month later in a phone interview, he doesn't know. And he fears they may be among the "HRs" (human remains) that the New Orleans police are still recovering from his district.
Prelude to Disaster
The U.S. Weather Service will tell you that Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the lower Mississippi delta town of Buras, La., at 7 a.m. Central Standard Time on Monday Aug. 29.
That statement does nothing to convey how big the storm was, how well formed, and how much damage the outer bands of a Category 4 hurricane can do long before the eye comes ashore. If you want information on that, talk to the cops who were out in the streets trying to get people to head to higher ground as the storm intensified around them.
In the Fifth District of New Orleans, the men and women under Bryson's command spent Saturday and Sunday trying to get people to evacuate. But very early Monday morning, Bryson knew that mission was over.
"I was driving down the street in an Expedition at 1:30 that morning, and the wind was hitting the side so hard that I was on two wheels," says Bryson. "I almost flipped over, and I knew it was time to get my people off the streets.
"Bryson had a hard time getting his officers to obey his orders to come in. They were too busy trying to evacuate people. "It was three in the morning, we had 135-mph sustained winds and the water was rising, and I was begging my officers to come off the street.
"Elsewhere in the Big Easy, a variety of NOPD units were sheltering in pre-designated positions, waiting for the storm to pass or at least decrease in intensity so that they could move out to respond to the disaster. The tactical team and its critical equipment, including the personally owned boats of some officers, took cover in an elevated parking deck in the downtown area, the chief's staff was in the Hyatt-Regency Hotel across from the Louisiana Super Dome where some 30,000people had already sought shelter, and the vice and narcotics division had moved its officers to the Maison Dupuy Hotel.
Before the storm had completely passed, a detachment of Capt. Jeffrey Winn's tactical team braved the high winds and blistering rain to recon the area. They came back with reports of debris-filled streets and rising water.
The Bywater Hospital
The tac team's report was old news to Bryson. When he called his officers off the street at 3 a.m. Monday, they re-grouped at the nearby Bywater Hospital to ride out the storm. The hospital was supposed to have been evacuated. But Bryson and his Fifth District officers were in for a surprise.
There was a long-term care facility on the third floor and 49 patients still had to be evacuated. When the electricity went down, those patients were in trouble.
"We had a generator there that we were told would last at least seven days before it ran out of diesel," Bryson says. "The hurricane knocked out the electricity and, then about 2 a.m., the generator went under water and that took it out."
No power meant that patients in the long-term care facility who were on respirators had to be bagged. NOPD officers and nurses took turns bagging those patients for as long as 12 hours before they could be evacuated.
Throughout the storm and into the morning, Fifth District officers worked to evacuate the patients. The operation was conducted in the dark using flashlights and candles. They had to move the patients, some of whom weighed as much as 450 pounds, down three flights of stairs and through the ground floor of the hospital, which was flooded.
Carrying people through three feet of floodwater is not pleasant. It was even nastier at the Bywater Hospital, where the rising waters knocked over bio-hazard containers filled with used needles, bloody gauze, dirty bandages, and other biomedical waste. Six officers involved in the Bywater evacuation contracted severe staph infections.