Storm survivor escapes, but can't forget lost sister

September 14, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

JANICE MARIE Fields is still missing.

Her family last heard from her in the early morning hours of Monday, Aug. 29, just before Hurricane Katrina unleashed her fury on New Orleans and Mississippi's shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico.

Barbara Fields May, 63, spoke to her youngest sister about 2:30 a.m. Janice Fields told May she was coming to join the family for one of their traditional "hurricane parties." That's what the Fields family, longtime New Orleans residents, did when hurricanes approached the Big Easy. Eat a little. Drink a little. Pray a lot.

"In my city," May said, "hurricanes are not a biggie."

May was at her sister Theresa Fields' house that night. The family had decided to gather there because Theresa lived in a part of New Orleans that rarely floods.

Theresa's three daughters were there, as well as another sister, Veronica Fields Bolden. Now Janice was coming to join them, and she'd be riding her bike. She never made it. And that's the first thing May wants people to know. If anybody knows where 52-year-old Janice Marie Fields is now, her sisters and three nieces want her to know they're all safe and taking up temporary residence off Liberty Road near Milford Mill High in Baltimore County.

But that's Part 2 of the story. Part 1 is how this family came to survive what has been called one of the greatest natural disasters in American history.

It began that night in Theresa Fields' house in the Gentilly section of New Orleans.

The Fields family evacuated New Orleans when Hurricane Ivan hit last year. But they didn't for Hurricane Katrina. They didn't see a need for it, not once they heard Katrina's eye was forecast to hit Mississippi, not New Orleans.

At first, the decision seemed wise. There were high winds that blew some shingles off the roof, May said, but nothing more serious than that. The family went to sleep, awoke the next morning and ate breakfast.

Then the water came.

It seemed a trickle at first. May didn't even worry when the water started to rise just above the wheels of her car. She went back to sleep.

But when she heard her car alarm go off, she knew the water had risen even higher. She looked out the door and saw the water wasn't just rising, but rising rapidly. She, her sisters and her nieces went to a two-story house in the neighborhood, then to a church.

When the water kept rising, some men - some of whom were not related to the Fields - broke into a three-story education building.

About 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, the group found a way to the roof of the building, where the Coast Guard rescued them about 1:30 the next morning and took them to the Superdome.

An elderly man and the children in the group were the first to go. Then Coast Guard personnel returned and rescued some married couples. May and her sister Theresa were the last to go.

"Finally we got to the Superdome," May said. "That's where the nightmare began."

It wasn't just the failure of the toilet facilities. (The Superdome's toilets are designed for use four to five hours no more than once per week. Amazing, isn't it, that no government official at either the city, county, state or federal level would figure they would overflow if used on a 24-hour basis for several days?) It was the heat, the effects of which became more severe as the bottled water, plentiful at first, dwindled after a few days.

"We only drank a little bit of the water," May recalled. "Mostly we poured it on ourselves to keep cool."

It was the gunshots that May heard throughout the Superdome. It was her visit to one restroom where she saw blood on the floor. It was the rumors that she heard about the ghastly things going on in the Superdome. It was having to stand outside in a drenching rain after officials decided, perhaps belatedly, that the Superdome wasn't safe and that those staying there were to be evacuated in buses.

It was the people passing out while waiting for buses. It was the man who had a seizure.

On Wednesday night, Aug. 31, one of May's sisters was sure they were all going to die. May had reached the end of her rope. The next morning, she asked a policeman to take her to jail because she thought the conditions there had to be better.

Her sisters and others persuaded her to get on the bus that took them to Dallas, where they found shelter at the Reunion Center.

The story of how they got from there to Baltimore County - and the people who helped them along the way - will appear in my next column.

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