A Waking Nightmare


New York Times

September 27, 2005

When I asked Gail Siles how the whole thing had affected her psychologically, she said, "Don't ask me now. It's too early." But in a later conversation, during which she seemed on the verge of tears, she said, "Listen, everybody's depressed and kind of still in shock. Everybody who's been through this thing. It's hard to believe it happened."

Ms. Siles, a nurse, and her husband, Earl, a machinist, thought they had done a pretty good job preparing for the future. They expected, in a few years, to settle into the kind of comfortable, late-middle-age existence in which the heaviest lifting is picking up the grandkids.

That changed a few weeks ago when, as Ms. Siles put it, "All of a sudden water started coming through the living room."

Unannounced, the nightmarish flood that followed Hurricane Katrina arrived at the Sileses' residence about 10 o'clock on a Monday morning.

The couple lived in a brick one-story home in Chalmette, a suburb of New Orleans. The water rushed into their home so fast they couldn't even open the front door to get out. Within minutes it was up to their waists. "We had to climb through a window," Ms. Siles said.

Chalmette is a community of about 32,000 in St. Bernard Parish and many of its residents, including the Sileses, have boats, which are used for fishing, crabbing and other recreational activities. After climbing through the window, the Sileses slogged through the onrushing floodwaters and a pouring rain to their 17-foot Sunbird, which was parked in the carport. Only then did they realize they had left the keys in the house. Earl Siles swam back for them.

While he was in the house getting the keys, the water kept rising. "The boat was just about touching the roof of the carport," Ms. Siles said. "I'm screaming for him to hurry up. Because if we got stuck under there, you know, we would have died.

"He got the keys and we got the boat going. By the time we got out of there the water was already even with the gutters on the roof. It was rainy and windy and we got about two blocks in the boat and got under the roof of the bank's drive-through. We were there about an hour and a half, then had to leave because the boat started touching the roof."

Eventually the rain eased and the Sileses began driving their motorboat through the submerged neighborhood. Street signs and gas stations were underwater. Cars and trucks were floating by. Utility poles attached to streaming electrical wires seemed to be everywhere.

"That's when we started hearing the people hollering and screaming," Ms. Siles said. "They were on their roofs, or leaning out their second-story windows, waving and screaming for help. So we just started rescuing people."

The Sileses would haul as many people into the boat as it could hold and take them to the local high school, which had been designated as a shelter for hurricane victims. After a while they saw that other civilians, and some police officers and firefighters, were out in boats doing the same thing.

"We kept it up all day," Ms. Siles said. "There were massive amounts of people, and we couldn't just leave them there. So we'd load them up. The boat was filled to capacity on each trip."

For two days the Sileses carried people to safety in their little boat, perhaps as many as 150 people in all. Finally, exhausted and filthy, the Sileses themselves were evacuated to a shelter in Baton Rouge, where they stayed for two days. Eventually they made their way to Brooksville, Fla., where they are staying with relatives and trying, as the reality of their own dismal situation becomes clearer and clearer, to formulate the next chapter in their lives.

Their home is ruined. Their jobs are gone. Ms. Siles's car and Mr. Siles's truck have been destroyed.

"If we did not have family," said Ms. Siles, "we'd be living under a bridge."

Still traumatized, and uncertain about the future, Ms. Siles is nevertheless sure of at least one thing: she will never settle again in an area that might be threatened by a hurricane or flood.

"I mean, I'm a nurse and I deal with life and death every day," she said. "But once you go through something like that, you don't want to go through it again. It was like a bomb went off in your hometown."