Two liveaboards look back on riding out Hurricane Katrina in a New Orleans marina (published November 2015)
Ask anyone whether it would be a good idea to ride out Hurricane Katrina onboard a boat in a New Orleans marina and it’s almost guaranteed that they wouldn’t even think it was a real question. But that was the hurricane plan for a few New Orleans liveaboards who were only expecting one heck of a wicked night out on their boats 10 years ago. What they got instead, were three weeks of hell, camaraderie and heroism and with civilization breaking down, the marina rapidly became an island of refuge in those dark days.
As all New Orleanians did, they went to bed that Friday night comfortable in the knowledge that Katrina was expected to make landfall near Pensacola, but they woke the next morning and learned that the Category 5 hurricane had tracked further northwest and would now strike their city in under 36 hours. The mad scramble of hurricane preparations quickly ensued with many of them securing the boats of absent owners after providing for their own.
TO EVACUATE OR NOT
With lines secured and supply runs winding down by Sunday morning, the majority of them opted to evacuate the city and join the 200 mile long traffic jams streaming from the coast. Dennis Raziano, a part-time liveaboard who’d spent nearly 28 years in the marina, knew all along that he was going to ride the storm out and watched them leave. He explains his decision to stay with a wry smile, “That’s my hurricane plan. I evacuate my home and send my wife off to stay with family in Greenville, MS and then I head out to my boat. I was taught many years ago to never leave the boat. Even if it’s floating down the highway—you never leave the boat.”
As such, Raziano has ridden out every hurricane to strike south Louisiana since Camille in 1969. One pier over, his neighbor, Kevin Stoufflet is similar having never evacuated his boat for a storm since 1981. Stoufflet adds, “It was never like this one though.”
The Orleans Marina is one of three large New Orleans marinas located along the southern shores of Lake Pontchartrain, which is actually not a lake, but more of a brackish bay or large tidal lagoon with a narrow opening at one end to the waters of the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. The marina is considered a reasonably safe ‘hurricane hole’ existing as an inner harbor surrounded by the much larger Municipal Harbor, a 60 plus acre park, yacht clubs, boathouses, restaurants and high-rise condominiums. Its southern edge is a large securable seawall that rises 13.6 feet above sea level and is part of the levee protection system. Within the marina, the boats float near rooftop level of the below sea level neighborhood of Lakeview just beyond the supposed protection of the levees. The now infamous 17th Street Canal floodwall breach, one of many that occurred throughout the city, is a mere 200 yards away.
With the first feeder bands coming through the city and the winds of the northwest quadrant of the storm pushing water into the lake by way of the Rigolets and shipping canals, Raziano started taking notes of the water levels in the marina. His measurements would later become an invaluable resource for the Army Corps of Engineers in documenting the storm surge. By 11:00 p.m. on Sunday, the water level had swallowed the wooden finger piers and Katrina was still 200 miles from New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.
In his 28 years on his 34 foot shrimp boat Kaui Girl that he’d converted into a houseboat, Raziano had never seen the water rise higher than the main cement piers, but by 4:00 a.m. the water was matching that and the eye of the storm was still five hours away. He adds, “Once you make all the lines, there’s really nothing that you can do except hold on, ride it out.”
THE EYE OF THE STORM
As the eye of the storm neared landfall, the winds began to clock in the 50-80 mile per hour range and it wasn’t long before sustained pressure was pounding the city at higher levels with gusts bouncing into the 130’s. Raziano describes, “I’ve got 3/4 inch nylon lines that I use for storms and the boat gets so much pressure on it with the ropes getting so tight that they become like piano wires. The lines were actually sawing through the boat in places and they started moaning. Having been through so many of these I knew that once the boat started moaning, I knew that was a good sound. The boat was still in her slip. They’ll go in different tones. If it’s a ‘soft’ wind they produce a low moan, but when they get that high pitch, you know you’d better get up and start paying attention.”
Stouffel further describes the experience “It was way worse than I thought it would be. The boats were rocking wildly with masts coming together and striking each other. And the water kept continuing to rise.”
In the early morning hours, Raziano attempted to get a bit of fitful sleep when above his berth a hatch cover blew out throwing streams of wind and water down on him. His immediate reaction was to jam a pillow into the hatch, but that was sucked out before his eyes. He then ran out onto the stern of his boat to track down anything that he could use to secure it and spotted a piece of plywood floating over the cement piers.
In his preparations the day before, he’d built a small rope swing off of the roof of the pier, and using that he swung off the boat into the now waist high and dark water above the cement piers. He then manhandled the plywood back onto the boat and broke out his skillsaw and in the rain and winds fashioned a new cover for the hatch. After securing the hatch inside the cabin, he then climbed out on the upper deck to secure it from the outside and that was one of the scariest moments for Raziano, “The rain in the wind was burning like fire, but what I was most uncomfortable about was the corrugated metal roofing over the cement piers peeling off. If they peel off they become like saw blades flying through the air. That was my biggest concern, but we didn’t lose one piece of it. They built this marina solid.”
As the brunt of Katrina blasted the city, this is really when it got as Stouffel puts it, “Surreal and terrifying. I did more praying in one night than I usually do in a month.” From the pilothouse of his custom 41 foot ketch, Stouffel could only sit and watch, “My lines were all under water. It was over the dockboxes. I kept saying over and over to myself that this is like biblical proportions. Four sailboats washed up on top of each other right in front of me. Then the stern of a large powerboat in the slip across from me jammed under the roof of the pier with her bow lodged on a piling. That boat stayed perched like that for almost a year afterwards.”
The highest force of winds came when they clocked in from the west. Raziano explains, “With the shadows of the large condominiums around the marina and the huge oaks of the park, the winds were somewhat diminished. Over to the west there were a series of restaurants built out over the water, but once all that crap got knocked down there was almost nothing to block the wind. That’s when we got most of the pressure. When it came out of the west is when we started getting the 120’s. In this marina, most of the damaged or foundered boats were on the west side of the piers.”
He recalls how by dawn Monday morning, the normal water depth under his boat had doubled to 24 feet, leaving the water a mere foot and a half from overtopping the seawall. In the marina’s small parking lot there were two foot seas. Because of the height of the water from the surge, they were now looking over the rooftops of the piers and down into the surrounding neighborhood over the seawall. At one point, Raziano watched as a huge vortex of wind came off of one of the condo high-rises. He explains, “I was looking out the starboard door and all that wind pressure was rolling off the edge of the building. It created a massive vortex and built up until it peeled the roof off of a smaller house next door. It took the roof up 5 feet in the air, levitated it for a couple of moments, turned it 90 degrees and then smashed it into the little blue house to the left of it. Debris was flying everywhere.”
As the day progressed and the weather started to slowly subside, the three liveaboards were able to survey the damage, although they were stranded on their boats. It was bad, with about 20 percent of the boats of all different stripes either sunk or resting atop other boats, but it wasn’t anywhere near complete devastation. What they couldn’t know at the time was how badly damaged the other marinas were, with both reaching up to 80 percent losses. They also had no idea that there was an issue of a floodwall collapsing, a mere stone’s throw away, but they would learn about it soon enough along with the rest of the country and the world.
AN ISLAND UNTO THEMSELVES
Communication with the outside world was non-existent, let alone to his mother’s house only four blocks away, and as such Stouffel grew increasingly concerned about his wife and mother who had ridden out the storm there. It wasn’t until Tuesday that the water levels in the marina had dropped significantly to where they could walk out onto the cement piers. Having learned on the radio that the levee walls were failing and understanding now that the entire city was filling with water, Stouffel took a dinghy and started what was to become the first rescue mission from the marina.
He waded through the rising waters towards his mother’s home and describes how Robert E. Lee Blvd. was flowing like a river from behind him, with the dinghy dragging him along. Finding his family safe, but wet with over a foot and a half of rising water in the house, he and his wife placed his petrified mother who had recently gone through hip replacement surgery into the dinghy and made their way back to his ketch fighting against the currents in the streets.
As the day progressed, more and more individuals trickled into the marina, forced by the rising waters in the city to evacuate their homes and out onto their boats. Included in this group was a New Orleans Police Officer, his wife and two others who set up a base on their sailboat down the pier.
That evening, the group of now eight had what Raziano calls a sort of pier party explaining, “It was getting dark and there was nothing much that we could do so we fired up a couple of BBQ pits, and with a lot of the food thawing out, we cooked a bunch of fish, chicken and ribs. That night we cocktailed and ate like hogs. You either eat it or throw it away, it was a huge stress relief for all of us.”
The next morning it started turning ugly. With local sailmakers and others joining in, they’d commandeer small flatboats and made runs out into the immediate neighborhoods conducting rescues. Raziano describes, “After every storm for the first few days it’s always stagnant and sweltering. The flood water stunk from all the sewage backing up into the city. It was black water. It was nasty.”
At this point there was still no military or government presence whatsoever and the group began to make runs further and further out into the mayhem. With the flood waters reaching 12 feet in the city, they’d pull up to the gutters and gather people onboard who had fled to their rooftops, many having axed their way out from their attics. One run in particular was for the marina’s security guard who was several miles away and stranded on top of his home. Raziano finishes, “By the third day of rescues, it was rapidly changing from rescues and more to one of body recovery.” In the neighborhood surrounding the marina, over 350 people were eventually discovered to have drowned in their homes or attics.
With the NOPD Officer returning periodically to the marina and detailing some of the horror stories out in the city with police involved in running gun battles with criminal dead-enders, the group agreed to lock down the marina at night and set up watches. All were now armed carrying rifles or holstered pistols. Raziano would joke with the exhausted officer telling him, “I’d take off that shirt that says police on the back of it and put on one that says no brah I ain’t the police.”
It was finally during this time that a military presence started to appear. Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters appeared in the sky, roping soldiers down onto the non-flooded roads near the levees and the marinas in order to cut down streetlights and power poles to make landing zones. A few dumped out cases of MRE’s for them. The group’s real concern was not for food, but for their rapidly diminishing water supply in the heat of a late August Louisiana sun.
Eventually elements of the 82nd Airborne and the Massachusetts National Guard appeared permanently and with them, their first sense of real security. Raziano smiles as he describes how one afternoon he went over and talked with some of the soldiers from the Airborne who were bivouacked on high ground in tents across the street at an Army Corps of Engineers building. After getting the latest news, he inquired as to how they had to be miserable in this heat. He states, “I mean we were actually better off than they were. With a few of us having generators, we had air conditioning onboard. I went over there and asked if there was anything I could do for them. The soldiers were all like, man we’re supposed to be here saving you.” That afternoon, Raziano led the troops over to a restaurant where they secured 800 pounds of as yet unmelted ice. The appreciative soldiers teased him saying, “What dude is able to come up with 800 pounds of ice in a disaster zone.”
The days out at the marina turned into weeks and the group tried their best to adapt to an uncomfortable situation. They eventually took over a swimming pool located on the second story of a condo building and were able to start bathing. Improvisation took over with the stern platforms of boats resting on the piers becoming makeshift tables and bars. Scrounging for fuel became more and more difficult, but they persevered.
Stoufflet finishes, “It was eerie out there. For months afterwards it was just quiet, with nobody around. It was pitch black, like being way out in the country rather than being in a marina in a big city. I’ve never seen stars like that in a city. But what was great was the closeness of the people who were out here. Everybody pulling together, pooling their food and water. It was great, but you know—we were definitely in survival mode.”
Troy Gilbert is a boating journalist and author based in New Orleans. Visit his website gulflatitudes.com.