Salvaging what remains from family life at home

A father and son brave the flood, hoping to save essentials, keepsakes

Katrina's Wake

September 09, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - On the 10th day, frustration sets in. Roy Frischhertz Jr. is on the second floor of his $400,000 home and his dad is downstairs, up to his chest in rancid green water, and they're both trying to figure out what to save, what will fit in the boat parked just under the second-story guest bathroom.

A hunting jacket? Leave it.

His daughter's Madame Alexander doll? Take it.

The silver? Take it.

Paintings? Leave 'em.

"I feel like I'm wasting my time," Frischhertz says, the sweat soaking through his blue ball cap.

All of this - the 12 bags of clothing, the fishing rods, Frischhertz's grandfather's pistol, his 1-year-old daughter's crib, which she can't sleep without - all of it must go through the bathroom window, into the boat, through the flooded streets of his neighborhood, into a truck and over to his parents' house a few miles away.

Could it really be worth it?

"You're not wasting your time," Roy Frischhertz Sr., 56, tells his son. "It's your life."

The father and son, like so many other victims of Hurricane Katrina, were on a rescue mission yesterday. One suburb of New Orleans, Jefferson Parish, allowed its residents back in to salvage what they could. But the roads would be shut down again today, and it was unknown when they would reopen.

"It's gonna be a year before I can live in this home again," says Roy Jr., 28, who co-owns a construction company with his father. He just finished renovating the house eight months ago, with hardwood floors, granite countertops and new appliances. The water is 5 feet deep on his first floor and had been higher.

The younger Frischhertz's home is 4 feet above street level, so there is 9 feet of water on his street. It covers the stop signs and goes up to the nets of the basketball hoops in his neighbor's driveways. It smells foul, there's a thin sheen of oil on top, and dead fish are floating.

What you can't see are the cars parked on the submerged streets. This presents a hazard for boaters. As Roy Jr. was guiding his 15-foot power boat toward his home, he twice heard thwacks that might have been the rotors striking a vehicle.

"That's a Ferrari there," he says after one thwack. He laughs at the thought.

"You won't find many people here more jovial than us," his father says. "But at a certain point, you reach lunacy."

They first returned to the house on Vicksburg Street, not far from the now infamous 17th Street Canal, a few days ago and found the water covering the front door. No getting in there. So they climbed onto the roof over the front porch and smashed in a bathroom window with the barrel of a shotgun.

Yesterday, father and son were climbing through that window carefully to avoid the glass on the floor.

They head to the stairwell to the first floor. Roy Sr. strips to his underwear, puts on a pair of plastic shoes and announces, "I'm going in."

He is quickly up to his chest. Sofa cushions are floating to his right, a photo of his son and daughter-in-law are in front of him and an oil painting is to his left. "You're looking for your baby pictures, right?" Roy Sr. asks his son.

But first things first. Son shouts down to his dad, "There's a fishing pole in the corner, and the guns are in the back." In short order, eight rifles and shotguns, dripping wet, and four fishing poles are passed up the stairs.

Now what? Roy Sr. finds two compact discs with digital photos of Frischhertz's daughter. "Good deal!" Frischhertz says, grabbing the disc. "That's irreplaceable."

Roy Sr. wades into the dining room and pulls a chest, filled with silver and other valuables, to the foot of their stairs. He looks on the bright side: "It's pretty easy to move furniture under these conditions."

As he's feeling through the water for anything worth saving, the sound of a boat's motor and a man's voice carry through the open bathroom window. "Hello! Anybody home?" It's law enforcement officials, who are looking for anyone left behind - and keeping the neighborhood clear of looters.

"This your house?" a man in the boat shouts to Roy Jr.

"Yes sir," he says.

"You getting stuff out?"

"We're getting life's most important things," the younger Frischhertz says, holding up a fishing pole.

"Just don't eat anything you catch in this water," he replies.

The officials ask whether Roy Jr. knows of anyone trapped in homes. They've been knocking on doors - or windows - and trying to hear noises of survivors. The younger Frischhertz tells of an old man who lived at the corner of Brook and Memphis.

"He wouldn't leave," he shouts out the window. "He was 75. He said he was gonna die there."

Then it's to the bedroom to get his wife's clothing, which fills six bags. They had rushed out of town before the storm struck. That day was Ella's first birthday, and her gifts are still stacked in the guest bedroom. Roy Sr. retrieves one of them.

"This needs to go," he says, holding up an unopened Barbie fishing kit. "That's my birthday gift to my granddaughter."

Out of the water on the first floor, he puts on dry clothes but can't shake a certain funk that has attached itself to him. "It smells like I went swimming in a toilet," he says.

Their belongings are passed out the bathroom window, down the porch roof and into the boat - even the baby's crib, now disassembled. Floating in the water outside the house, they see their huge crawfish pot and reach for it. That needs to come, too.

Motoring away, the younger Frischhertz notices that the officials had spray-painted his house as well.

"9-8," it said. "Empty."

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