A lawman goes home, but there is no home

Sheriff's corporal spent weary week aiding others

New Orleans

Katrina's Wake

September 07, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

CHALMETTE, La. - A queen-size mattress soaking up oil in the middle of the street. A mud-spattered vending machine on the roof of a house. Two Chevy vans, nose down in nearby willow trees, as if dropped from the sky. And water - brown, foul-smelling water - rippling in the warm afternoon sun as far as the eye could see.

It takes a lot to make Harrel Clark's jaw drop, but as members of the Maryland National Guard drove him into his neighborhood in St. Bernard Parish yesterday for his first visit since Hurricane Katrina made landfall eight days before, the burly sheriff's corporal could barely muster words.

"I hope I never live to see this kind of thing again," he said.

The Humvee trip was one of the first exploratory forays into the heart of the parish of 66,000 just southeast of New Orleans, one of the hardest-hit districts in the area.

The parish that Clark calls "home to down-home folks" is still almost completely under water, in some places as much as 17 feet deep. The destruction was so sudden and devastating that Clark, 38, who has lived here all his life, is certain that the modest homes lining the roadways contain corpses.

"Lots of 'em," he said, surveying the wreckage. "Hundreds, no question."

Clark's guess is as good as anyone's. For two days after the huge storm, he was one of an impromptu team that plied the parish's towns - Chalmette, Meraux, Violet - in boats, trolling for survivors.

"The water was so high we were going over houses," he said. "We started with two Jet Skis. Then we found a dinghy, a few pirogues [canoes], anything we could steal." He and his friends, all lifelong St. Bernard residents, pulled about 100 people from rooftops.

Even if he could have reached it, Clark has been too busy to look for his house. He and his sheriff's department colleagues, most of whom lost their homes, set up a shelter in a warehouse at Port Chalmette, a ferry station for commuters to New Orleans. For a week straight, they worked in shifts to provide food, water and a place to sleep for 3,000 parish evacuees here and at the county jail. They dubbed the place Camp Katrina.

About 250 of the department's 320 officers took part in the operation; the others had disappeared. They enlisted civilians to help early on, but as the numbers of evacuees grew and the situation became more desperate, the officers decided to wear full uniforms and arms to oversee the crowds.

They scavenged for food and water in abandoned stores in town after supplies at the port were used up, and took up residence in the Cajun Queen, a riverboat that had ridden out the storm.

The evacuees were taken by ferry to Algiers or to a nearby Navy ship, which took them to a staging area, where buses took them to the New Orleans airport.

Last week, the men said, looters set up shop in a blasted-out warehouse above the port and were shooting at the shelter. When the 29th Military Police Company of the Maryland National Guard arrived and secured the place late Monday night, it was the first relief they had received.

"Nobody helped til y'all came," Clark told the Humvee driver, Sgt. Joe Hatcher, 26, of Frederick. "We sure appreciate it."

Hatcher, an Iraq war veteran, and the other drivers were dispatched by the company commander, Capt. Marc Blum, to escort Clark and two of his colleagues into St. Bernard so they could see what was left of their homes. Clark, a lifetime outdoorsman with massive biceps, was half-talking to himself as he offered commentary on the shattered neighborhoods passing by the truck's window.

The wooden bungalow to the left, dropped onto its side in the middle of a field? An old slave quarters. He attended the high school on the right, the one with the shattered windows, and he has friends who work in the refinery that has spilled oil into the streets.

"Shopped at that Winn-Dixie every other day," he said, pointing at what used to be a grocery store, its parking lot covered in knee-deep mud.

As Hatcher navigated the streets, brown waves pluming from under the Humvee's wheels, Clark recounted his rescue efforts. The flooding rose so fast here, a place bordered on three sides by water, that some homes were engulfed within 10 minutes. Few people had time to grab shoes, leaving many to stand for hours atop scalding rooftops. "A lot of bad blisters on feet," he said.

Families with pets had to make tough choices. "We didn't have room at the shelter for dogs," Clark said. "If people refused to board without the pet, we said, `Fine, we'll just take the kids.' The parents would get in then."

Clark is pleased at how the folks here pulled together in the disaster. He proudly termed them survivors. But he knew there would be little left of his house on Meadow Street.

His wife and son fled to Houston a week ago, and he hoped to send her pictures of what he found. The only item he couldn't live without, he said, was an L.C. Smith shotgun that his grandfather had left him: "And his granddaddy left it for him. Sentimental value? You bet."

Hatcher's Humvee could get his passenger no closer than a mile from his home. Agents from the Louisiana Fish & Wildlife Department picked Clark up in a surface-skimming airboat to try to make the final leg.

Half an hour later, Clark returned on the airboat, a spume of water behind him. He looked grim. Hatcher, his blue eyes wide, asked what he had seen.

Clark burst into tears. "It's all gone," he said. "It's all gone." He got into the Humvee and stared blankly outside.

On the slow drive back to Camp Katrina, where Hatcher and his fellow Guardsmen will be standing watch for the next several days, Harrel Clark lifted his sunglasses and wiped the tears from his eyes. Across his lap was the L.C. Smith shotgun.

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