As others flee the city, some choose to stay

Katrina's Wake

September 05, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS -- Water laps at the top step of Glenn Mack's tiny house near Elysian Fields Avenue in this city's 8th Ward.

Most of his neighbors fled last week. At least five of those who couldn't or wouldn't get out are dead -- floating in the water or lying on curbs or in houses. But Mack isn't going anywhere, and so far has ignored official warnings to leave a home surrounded by chest-deep water for dozens of blocks in every direction.

"We are going to survive, baby," said the stubble-bearded 46-year-old mechanic, standing shirtless on his doorstep in a pair of gym shorts. "We are going to survive, trust me."

Mack and his girlfriend, Pamela Wynn, live in the 2200 block of N. Galvez St., crammed into three rooms with two ailing, elderly neighbors. Claude Ellzey, 70, can't walk and barely speaks because of a stroke. His wife, Ruth Ellzey, 63, is a diabetic.

"These children took us in," said the frail, gentle-spoken Ruth Ellzey, gesturing gratefully to Mack and Wynn. Her husband looked confused as he lay on a bed in a room cluttered with furniture and boxes, while a portable radio droned in the background, tuned to a station reporting news of the disaster.

"Jesus," she said, "will pull us through."

The four are cut off from the rest of the city, but they are far from alone. Mr. Clarence, neighbors say, is just down the block, while Mr. LeRoy and Mr. Vernon are around the corner.

Just about every block in the immediate neighborhood seems to have one or two stubborn residents who refuse to evacuate, despite repeated pleas and warnings from rescuers in passing boats.

Some of the holdouts did not want to abandon their homes for fear of losing them. Others didn't want to risk being separated from relatives or pets.

Many had heard radio reports of chaos at gathering points, such as the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center, and felt safer where they were.

The Ellzeys said they would have left New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, but they have no family and no other place to stay. They tried to ride out the storm but found they couldn't cope. They wanted to evacuate but feared the consequences.

Volunteers took about 175 of their neighbors to the shoulder of Interstate 10 at the intersection of Elysian Fields Avenue, where they spent days waiting in vain for buses to evacuate them.

One 75-year-old man died on the freeway shoulder there early last week, and authorities removed his body from the curb about noon yesterday.

"They've been hearing about people being killed, being shot," said Wynn, who before the hurricane worked at a nearby fast-food restaurant. "It's not that people don't want to go; they're just afraid." But now that New Orleans is filled with law enforcement officers, troops and rescue personnel, it's not clear how much longer those who have refused to leave will hold out.

Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff said yesterday that the entire city would have to be evacuated, even though many residents have said they want to stay.

"We are not going to be able to have people sitting in houses in the city of New Orleans for weeks and months while we de-water and clean this city," Chertoff said after arriving in Louisiana. Helicopters buzzed over the city all day yesterday, plucking small groups of survivors from rooftops of community centers and schools. Heavily armed rescuers splashed through inundated neighborhoods in flat-bottomed boats, inflatable rafts and airboats.

One purple-painted amphibious vehicle, which normally gives visitors tours of the bayous, delivered 11 flood refugees to a makeshift landing pad on eastbound I-10 about 2 p.m. From there, a medevac helicopter took the frail and sick to the New Orleans airport to be assessed and assigned to a hospital outside the stricken city.

Rescue workers warned yesterday that food and water deliveries will soon stop and urged holdouts evacuate. Many seemed to heed the warning.

Mack, however, said he is determined to stay put. He has stockpiled food, batteries and other necessities, and estimates that the four people in his home can survive for weeks without outside help. If he needs it, he can probably still get help.

Before the hurricane, residents say, the Eighth Ward was a rough place, with a reputation for drug dealing and violence. All the houses have bars on doors and windows.

In two vacant homes in the 2000 block of Frenchmen St., someone had tied seven pit bulls to the walls with boat chains. One fawn-colored puppy, whose ribs were sticking out, greedily chomped on peanut M&M's from a military meals-ready-to-eat pack provided by a passer-by. Now that their world is awash in water and most residents have fled, residents say the Eighth Ward has actually become a friendlier place.

"I was surprised how people here are coming together to help each other," said George Davis, 44, who lives on Elysian Fields Avenue.

He and his common-law wife, Lawanda Poley, 42, have spent the past several days ferrying food and water to the neighborhood from workers on I-10.

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