Alive in Truth Home Page

Joe Navis 12/01/05

Interviewer: Abe Louise Young
Location: Indian Creek Apartments, Austin, TX

JOE: Isleños are a group of people, a culture of people. “Down the road”, we call it in the Delacroix Island, ‘Gio [Reggio], Yscloskey area, Southeast of New Orleans. It remained fairly isolated from the Canary Islands, thus the word, Isleños, “islanders,” you know?

[Our people] were sent [there] when Spain owned Louisiana. As you know Louisiana was owned by three countries in a very short time: it was owned by Spain, Louisiana, and America. I’m sorry, excuse me, Spain, France and America (laughs). That’s exactly right. And when Spain owned it, they sent a group of islanders to a number of different places, but it took hold in southeast St. Bernard Parish. And their being cut off geographically, they maintained the culture through the 1940s, and ‘50s, spoke Spanish in most households. It was a trapping, shrimping community. And so they were different, of course. The kids wouldn’t want to know that they were different to their friends in school, but they were different, you know? They had their own views on doctors, and they had a list of home healing things, using different parts of the woods, and different flowers that would heal stomach ailments, and it’s really interesting if you do an investigation of it.

Okay, my story begins! I was born—No. (Laughs) Actually, my story begins: my mom had a stroke a while back, and my dad has been caring for her, in a manner in which I admire, and wish I could have this much dedication to anything, you know? But he sat by her side every day for a long, long…too many days to actually—months and months, over a year, and he was there every day. So anyway, they’re gonna evacuate the hospital, and he’s gonna go with her, because last time he was gonna go with her and I was gonna split. But when he calls, they say, “Mr. Navis, things are too hectic right now, when we get where we’re going, we’ll call you, and why don’t you come by tomorrow when the storm passes.” And they had told us that, you know, that things looked poorly, and that she probably wouldn’t be around for another month, you know? So we were mourning that, and weren’t paying attention to the storm. And to be very honest, and a lot of times people don’t believe me, but I didn’t know the name of the storm until the day before it came.

And so the storm’s blowing, and I’m in Lower St. Bernard—well, I’m in Mid Parish. I have a house in Lower St. Bernard, but I’m with my dad in Mid St. Bernard Parish. And at 7:30, it looked like the eye was coming over, and he said, “I’m gonna go get a couple hours’ sleep, you go ahead and let me know if there’s any problems.” Well, he went to sleep, and I sat there listening to the radio, because by this time the power was out. And I sat there listening to the radio, and drifted asleep, I guess about 8 o’clock. At 8:20—everything’s good at 8 o’clock, except that our big pecan tree, which is 80 feet tall, easily, had fallen across our neighbors’ pool, and I remember telling my dad, “That’s Miss Yvette’s, she’s gonna be upset that that pecan tree fell in her pool.” (That’s not gonna be a problem any more.)

He said he was gonna take a nap, and then I drifted off, I tried to stay awake, but I drifted off, and at 8:20, I hear a loud, loud bang. Like someone blew the door open, or kicked it open, or blew the door with a dynamite charge, you know? And I jumped out of the sofa. And took two steps to look through the doors, the French louvre doors that we used. And I looked at the door and the water was pouring in at, I guess about the height of the doorknob, just pouring in, and you could see the water outside, it was much higher. And I screamed, “Dad, Dad, there’s water!” And he said, “From everywhere.”

By that time you could hear the windows start going, “Chshh! Chssh!!” And, “From everywhere, man, let’s get out of here!” He says, wait, wait he’s got a couple things to do. I went outside at this time to try to save my dogs. I had four dogs in the garage. And this all took place within 15, 20 seconds. I ran into the garage, and apparently the water had hit the garage before it hit the house, because the dogs were under water. I had set them up so that the wind, any wind damage that came, they would be safe; if a tree fell on the garage, they were safe.

These are hunting dogs, so you don’t have to get too upset, these, these dogs were hunting dogs. But I’ve never believed in the notion that hunting dogs can’t be pets, as I imagine you see, with the way I treat my dogs. These are both hunting dogs, and I think hunting dogs can be pets. They respond to human love. And they’re swimming around, these two. And I go in there, and I pull up the little carry cart that they’re in, and they’re all gone, and I take out my grand champion, and she’s gone. [Crying] And I take out her puppy, which is Christy, my oldest daughter’s baby, and, you know, and she’s gone. And I tried to push the water out of her lungs, and give her mouth-to-mouth—or mouth to snout—and she just didn’t respond, you know? She was....she was gone. And then there were two more that we loved. There was Milo, and the baby, the puppy.

So I came inside, and went to the back room, and I looked at my dad, and he could see in my eyes the pain in my eyes, and I could see pain reflected back at me. And I said “God,” I said, “we have to worry about getting ourselves out of here.” At the time he was pulling his drawers out, putting them in a pile, like he was going to save something, you know? You go on automatic pilot, you know? And I said, “Dad, we have to get out of here, we’re going to die.” And the water was getting higher. By the time we got out of his room, we had to swim, or go under water a little bit, to maybe, to here (indicates height of around six feet). So I just went all the way under to get through the door frame, and he went, you know, as quickly as he could, ‘cause he’s carrying, you know, his medicines, and my medicines, and some clothes that he’s grabbed, and I’m running around in a pair of underwear and a hunting shirt, with a pocket. And he stops in his room to get something and I said, “Dad, the water’s getting higher!” and he realizes it, and he swims under his door frame to get out, I said, “Dad, we’ve got to get out of here!”

And he swims around the corner of the front door, and he realizes that he can’t see light coming through the door. This all happened in a matter of minutes, maybe five minutes. And then all of a sudden he gets upset, he says, “Son, we’ve gotta get out of here, we’re gonna die!” I said, “Yeah, that’s what’s gonna happen.” And he went to the door, and he tried to push the door—the front door was open, but there’s a wire mesh screen door, on the outside, a burglar door, or whatever you call it, and he couldn’t budge it, ‘cause the water on the outside was higher than the water inside, and the pressure of the water is amazing. He couldn’t budge it, he said, “We’re trapped!”

I said, “Lemme give it a try.” And you get a little adrenaline rush when that happens. So I went under water, and I turned the knob, and I pushed it, and I pushed it enough for him to get out, and he said, “Come on, come on!” And so I looked back, and, there was nothing left to get, you know? So I have my shotgun in my hand. Why a shotgun I have no idea. I have a pair of pants in one hand, and the medicine he’s gave me, in the same hand as my pants. And, so, we go outside, and we swim to the top, and we just reach up and grab the gutter, because it’s right there by now, the water’s so high that the gutter of the house is right here. And we’re buffeted about by winds, and there’s a current coming from this way, and, you know, I’m holding on to all my stuff with one hand, holding on to the gutter with the other hand, and he slips off. And I dropped everything—I dropped everything I had, which is when my gun went to the bottom....his pills went floating across the street, but I went and grabbed him, and pulled him back to the house, and he was able to grab on, now.

This is a funny story—to me it is, at least. I’ve got this big lab on my back, scared to death. This girl right here (gestures at dog) Cima is on my back, scared to death. And Corky is swimming around. Well, Corky goes swimming, and takes a right at the end of the house, and I look at her and I say, “Well, that was smart.” So I followed Corky, we both followed Corky, Dad in front of me, and me with a hand put on his shirt this time because I didn’t want him to slip off again, he’s 78 years old. And, um, we get to the corner of the house, and there’s Corky sitting there in calm water. We go around the corner, and sure enough, the water’s calm, out of the current. Corky lead us to a safe place. (Laughs) Yeah—without Corky, it would have been more difficult. So anyway, around the corner of the house was where the fence was, and you could feel around with your feet, and I could stand up on the fence—fence gate—and me and him stood on the fence gate for a while. But the water kept coming and coming, so much that pretty soon, you could just step on the roof. And we did that, we were on the roof.

My dad was always very fastidious. I think I’ve revolted against that all my life, you know, being a slob, but he was always very fastidious, and was worrying about all the things he had hung, “I wonder if this is being knocked down, and this is being knocked down.” But one of the things he was fastidious about was my boats, and he had the boats all lined up. The smallest one came floating up, and I grabbed it. And the wind by this time is at about 140 miles per hour. The eye’s passed, and the wind is coming from the (pause) west. Northwest. And it’s stinging us. Stinging us, you know? And he said, “Man, it—rain— hurts!” So I went off on a—not much of a mission, it was just a walk, but the winds were pretty high but we figured that there was no other choice but to be on the roof. And I pulled the boat on top of him, to try to protect him, because he’s 78 years old, you know? And the wind was trying to pull the boat, you know was trying to get under the boat, and pull it, you know, flip it off of him.

I’m on top of the boat trying to hold it down. A big wind would come, it would lift it, and, uh, out of the corner of my eye—a couple of minutes later—out of the corner of my eye I see a piece of wood, and then it hit me. Actually they’ve all gone down (indicating former locations of bumps on his head.) But it hit me, and I hit the boat, and I was spitting teeth—spit a couple right there, but I was spitting teeth for days. But it didn’t hurt at the time.

And you weren’t hungry, and you weren’t—well I was dying for a cigarette, but it’s the things that, when you look at life, you know when you’re looking at life in the face, you know? It’s… things change. Your priorities aren’t the same.

So, we were up there for a while until the storm started abating a bit. I looked to the back and I see this guy that was in a yellow suit and he says, “Come on over here, I’ve got a boat.” There was no way for me to get to him, and I motioned to him, “I can’t, I have a 78 year-old,” I motioned to my 78 year-old dad, “with me,” and he says, “Swim.” And I said, “No, I can’t swim.” So toward the end of the storm, the wind had abated, and, uh, a boat shows up from nowhere. And I said, “I can’t get in, I’ve got dogs!” and he says, “Get in with your dogs, man, I’m taking y’all right around the corner, there’s a 3-story house.” Because we were on top of the house, and if the water would have rose two more feet, we’d have had to leave. Because, we had two feet to go.

And so we’d a had to, well, we’d a flipped the boat over, we weren’t gonna try those “swimming across the river” things, but, um, anyway, this guy comes by, and we jump in his boat, and we go around the corner, literally, about 12 blocks from my house, and there’s a guy with a three story house. And he’s the real hero of the hurricane. His name is Terry H., and he’s the real hero of the story. His wife was in Houston, so he came here with us and he wasn’t turning anybody down, in fact, he went and got pants that would fit me, and anything else we really needed, you know, from his house. He had a three-story house and he just realized that it was a total disaster. So that anything he had, he let us have, you know? And he was just good as gold, he was a golden guy. Anyway, we’re there with 21 people, as it winds up: the people that you probably would not let in your house during the normal time.

AIT: Like?

JOE: Well, minor criminals, you know, petty thieves, you know. They were the most resourceful. And they were the people who were running around in these boats saving old people’s lives. They had the cojones to chop through attics, and you know, drag people, and lift people, and put them in the boats. The people who you wouldn’t want in your house in a normal day, were the heroes of the hour. And I’m not saying that there weren’t other heroes.

AIT: So, Joe, I’m really interested in that part of the story about who you think were the heroes. Tell me a little more about that?

JOE: Well, the heroes, the big hero is the 20-year fireman who let everybody in his house. And one of these guys, one of these little criminals, was the first one—I shouldn’t say criminals, but I read their names in the paper—the first one to get there, he started going in through the guy’s window. And the guy said, “Wait, wait. You can come in though the door.” I mean, he was coming in! And they went back out and they saved people, and they saved people, and they saved people.

Mostly old people, mostly people who had made the mistake of going into their attic because nobody thought it was going to flood, and nobody certainly thought it was gonna flood to 15 feet, so people went into their attics, and then they were trapped in their attics, and there were people that died that way. But if he heard people were knocking, he was going to get those people, you know? And bring ‘em wherever he was going to bring ‘em.

AIT: So, okay, so, you’re in the house, with all the kids, and everybody. You’re in the fireman’s house. What’s going on?

We get to the fireman’s house, and he drops us off, and the first few days we were just kinda chilling. The first few days. We were back there 7 days. First few days we were just kinda chilling, and then after that, we started running out. And, the first time that a law officer came by was probably the third day.

A law officer came by, and he said, “You hear all that stuff that’s being told on the radio, from Governor Blanco, and from all these officials? It’s total bullshit. There’s nothing down here for us, there’s nothing here. You can take that at my word. I’ve been all over. We don’t have radios, we have to run in contact with one another. We’re using, like, pony express on horse—on boats—to run messages to one another. We don’t even have walkie-talkies that work.” He says, “We certainly don’t have,” he said some kind of term—“satellite phone” is what he said. “We certainly don’t have satellite phones, and all the lines are down for cell phones, and of course land phones. So,” he said, “we’re just, like, cut off, and nobody cares too much,” you know? “They seemingly don’t care too much about St. Bernard.” He was very frustrated and disappointed at this point. He said, “What people are doing is they’re commandeering boats: they’re going into stores, and you do what you’ve gotta do to keep these old people alive.”

‘Cause I was back there with seven old people. One had muscular sclerosis and congestive heart failure, she was on a catheter. She was the sickest lady there. Another man had had a stroke. He had three mini-strokes while we were back there where had lost sight in one eye, and he had three mini-strokes while we were back there. There was my dad, a 78 year-old man who had had a couple of chest operations, heart operations. But he tends to take care of himself. You know?

There was the daughter of the lady who died. But she didn’t die in the house. So we had to start rationing. Because people were just eating like they were at a buffet, you know? And we would go out, and we would hit a store, and took as many chips and potted meat, and chili, and ice cream—not ice cream—water, you know we got some for the coolers, and pop, as we could, just liquid. And cigarettes. That was one thing that we didn’t need that we took. And I feel kinda guilty about that. But the man said to, you know, police gave us the idea and permission. And as soon as he did, the little youngsters got in the pirogues, and—I couldn’t hot-wire a boat to save my life, but they came back in minutes with three boats, so we had an abundance of boats, we were like a little boat yard, you know? We had an abundance of boats.

And, the next day, somebody comes and says, if y’all can get to the jail, there’s a ferry that’ll take you to a bus so you can get out of here. So, fortunately or unfortunately, all the young kids, who didn’t have affiliation to these old people, split, thinking they were going to get out. As it turns out, they waited until the morning we got out, to ship ‘em.

But they left us, and they told us, when we met ‘em, that it was the worst thing in the world, you know, for them. They were sleeping under boxes and things, and they were all sitting there waiting for the ferry. The first ferry to come—this is second-hand knowledge, I wasn’t there—the first ferry to come, came in and New Orleans police had heard, no doubt, about the fact that there were so many people at the ferry landing, and that they were coming up to Algiers. They met the ferry, the first ferry from St. Bernard to go to Algiers. And they met them with a SWAT team, and told them that they couldn’t disembark. And so they had to turn around and come back. I wasn’t present for any of this.

AIT: Why did they get turned back?

Why? God knows. We were back there, just waiting our time, because the people were really sick, and couldn’t be moved. Particularly this one lady with multiple sclerosis. She was on all kind of medication, she was hallucinating, she was very, very ill. The man who had three TIAs was very, very ill. Roy, whose son-in-law was okay, but he’s older. The daughter. These are business owners, you know? She owns the hair salon Le Papillon. You heard of it? It’s right next to the shoe place on Mumphrey Road? Yeah. Anyway, and she raises birds. She lost, like, a thousand cockateels during the storm.

But, you know, for those of us who stayed in the storm—my dad brought this up—for those of us who stayed, if you left, my dad said, “If we’d left, we’d be saying, ‘Oh my god, look at all the stuff we lost! Oh, gee whiz, we lost all this stuff, and the insurance won’t be covering it because, blah blah blah,’” he says, “but since we stayed, we’re like, “Heck with the insurance, we’re alive. You know? We’re the most important thing.” You know? Without us, you know, 25,000 really doesn’t, you know—you can’t spend money when you’re dead. So, we were happy to be alive, really happy to be alive, because, you know, what we faced in that door being closed was very, very close to being trapped in the house.

Anyhow, yeah, they turned that ferry boat back, and they went back and waited longer. We were just sitting at the house, and listening to the radio, and trying to decide what to do. When to leave. And I got Ray Nagin on the radio, ‘cause the radio was just starting to die, and we heard the Nagin speech. Are you familiar with the Nagin speech?

It seemed to get Washington. I mean, I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation, but all night that night, after the Nagin speech, all night we saw, I saw 30 or 40 C-10s, I think is what they’re called – the cargo planes that carry a bunch of stuff. They were landing at the Navy airstrip, which was right across from us. So, whatever they were bringing was sorely appreciated, you know? I know I picked up a couple of Ensures, or Ensure-like products for my dad, because he wasn’t doing too well, he was dropping a pound a day, and that’s not really good for him, you know? Since he’s old and he was losing strength. And he had just had surgery lately. So, it was a tough time for everyone.

AIT: What did you feel when you heard the Nagin speech?

JOE: I felt the same thing Nagin felt, you know? I felt bewildered, and angry. [Cell phone call from daughter interrupts]. Luckily, luckily—

When we found out my mom was dying, my daughter took a bunch of pills, because my daughter is the caretaker of the family. She’s assumed that role. And when she found out that my mom was dying, she took a bunch of pills to… Hell, it was an attempt to kill herself. Let’s not be naive. That’s a strong drug. She took 15 of them, I don’t know how she lived. But, uh, we got her to sign herself into a psychiatric hospital, and the next day, they evacuated. And I really don’t know how I’d a gotten my dad and Christy out of the house and onto the roof.

She didn’t know where I was. And they were hearing terrible, terrible — we’re real codependent, her and I — and she was hearing terrible, terrible stories about New Orleans. Although the hospital wouldn’t let them watch the news, there would be an undercurrent of, “Gee, it’s bad in New Orleans.” And they were, of course, predicting ten thousand dead. I think they’re low-balling the figure, personally. I think more than that amount of people died, you know?

My mom had been in St. Rita’s, I’m sure you’ve heard of St. Rita’s, but we moved her to Huntington Place, and at the time of the hurricane, she was at Lifecare. And she had had a couple of weeks to go, and they had predicted her death, and they took her from Lifecare, and brought her to somewhere out of the path of the hurricane. We were told somewhere in between there, she died. Her death is under investigation.

AIT: Your mother? It’s currently under investigation?

JOE: Yes. So there’s at least a chance, I believe, that they probably did what they had to do, I guess, and make hard choices, you know? You know? Who do we take and who do we leave. But it’s not for us to do.

AIT: I’m sorry to hear that.

JOE: Yeah. Me too. ‘Cause we were very, very close.

AIT: So you lost your mom.

JOE: I lost my mom.

AIT: I’m so sorry. You’ve had a hell of a time.

JOE: Oh, we haven’t had a hell of a time, yet.—So anyway, we’re over there. And the first day we’re there, a table floats past, and I wade out, grab the table, and pull it up on the porch, and I say, “This is my bed,” and everybody, “ha ha ha ha,” and I said, “No, this is my bed.” And I put it on the porch, and that’s where I laid down — didn’t hardly do much sleeping, but I laid down. ‘Cause I knew, of course, there’s no air conditioning. And we didn’t have a generator for any fans or anything. But, um, I slept out there, and that’s where I was able to see the C-10s coming across.

But we were in the oil spill area you know, we were next to Murphy Oil, and as the third and fourth day came, you could see the oil coming in. It was a ten million gallon spill. And the oil just got thicker and thicker on top of the water. And I have a neighbor who I was with. Me and this neighbor never get along, we haven’t gotten along for years. And he was trying to tell everybody, “No, we’re gonna stay here, we’re gonna stay here until the water goes down, we’re gonna rebuild.” And I was saying, “We can’t stay here, this place is polluted. Look at this.” He says, “Man, Joey, that’s coming from the cars,” and all this stuff. I said, “No, it’s not, Al. This is not coming from the cars.” And, “You don’t know how much oil’s in cars. You don’t know nothing about nothing about...” Al’s an interesting fella, an interesting fella. I’ve known him for twenty years, and he’s never been wrong. The oil was this thick on top of the water (indicates). It was crude oil, about three inches of crude oil on top of the water. And we were in that water every day. Benzene, gasoline, oil. Everything, on top of that water. And Cima had to go swimming.

I paddled down by the house one time. And my dogs were in their cage, and I had to let them out, you know? And give them a burial at sea. And it was very hard. For me to pull them out and by this time they were kinda swollen, and... [Crying]

But I managed to pull them out, and push them off, and the current would take them off, one by one. And I got to Charlie. Charlie was our favorite, Charlie would romp around with Cima. And Charlie was like a 13—I had nothing but 13-inch beagles, you know? And Charlie would romp around with Cima, and bite her, and Cima would get tired, and she’d just put both paws on top of her, and uh and stop her, you know? And I’d say, “Oh, Cima,” And Cima’s four years old, and Charlie’s like 6 months old. “No, it’s not enough!” She’d roll away, and run up and bite her ear. It was funny, because Cima wouldn’t do anything to hurt her, you know? They were the best of friends, you know? They were the best of friends. But Charlie was the last puppy I pulled out, and I kissed her and pushed her away. And said, you know? “Goodbye Charlie, you’ve been a wonderful dog. A wonderful pet.” And she was gonna be a good hunting dog, as well. She really was. It’s unfortunate that we lost four sentient animals, but, I mean, hell, there was a thousand-something deaths of humans, you know? So, you can’t, you know, finding such grief for a dog, is, is kind of, I don’t know if it’s out there, but it’s at’s at least....difficult. To lose a dog.

AIT: Dogs are your family?

JOE: Dogs are family. They’re right below children. I love my children. Don’t get me wrong, I love them. But I like my dogs better (laughs). And they’re hunting dogs, but they’re pets. You know? And they know it. They can wrap me around their finger, this one (indicates Cima), particularly. She’s goes up in a duck blind, and if she’s cold, she’ll crawl up next to me. All I have to do is watch her, and she’ll let me know when the ducks are coming, she watches the sky.

When she first started out at 6 months, she would, she would go and see the duck and I would knock it down, and she’d go out and grab a decoy. And she’d come in with the decoy—“No, no, no, not the decoy! Not the decoy!” So I’d shoot another one, and I have an automatic, had an automatic, and I would fire, and the shell would eject, and she’d go and get the shell. “No, no, no, no, not the shell, not the shell!” So now she knows she’s gotta get the duck. She’d swim out, smell the duck, look at me, turn around. And I’ve gotta call her, I’d say, “No, get that duck, fetch that duck!” And she got to where she was fetching ducks. This was her first year, she was less than a year old. I had her professionally trained by one of the best trainers in the country, literally. I’m not just saying that. And I just lucked into him by calling a lady who sells chocolates. So Bart had her.

After four months with Bart, she was there from four months to eight months, I said, “Are you sure that’s my dog?” ‘Cause she would heel, she would and she would do doubles, and she was doing a T-drill, which is where you whistle stop, and they stop. “Over,” and they go over this way, over. “Back.” She was great, she was—and she’ll do that now. She’s retrieving decoys, she’s retrieving empty shells. She finally gets to retrieving ducks, and then, she goes out there and a duck is alive. Right? And she picks up the duck, and the duck turns around and bites her on the nose. And you’d a thought she was electrocuted! She threw that duck so far, and swam away! And I’m saying, “Fetch! Fetch!” And she looks at me like, “You go fetch that duck, I’m not fetching that duck, you know?” And it took us a while to get over that. And then she learned that she could kick a duck’s ass. And then it was on. And then it was okay. And she’s gotten really good. And she’s–if you know anything about chocolates, she’s out of the Pachanga line which is one of the best chocolates, Pachanga. Magna Force is her grandfather. And the Pachanga’s a great, great, great dog. And she’s turned out to be an excellent—she’s only lost one bird in three years of hunting. She was unable to find one bird, and I was unable to find it, as well. And I used to spend a majority of my hunts—because of the conservationist in me—if I knocked down a bird—they’re beautiful, beautiful animals, you know? They’re gorgeous. And I feel like if I knock down a bird, I’m gonna stop the hunt and go get it. And I’ve spent hours looking for a single bird. While birds are flying over my decoys, and landing in my decoys. “No, I’m after this one.” Most of the time I find them, occasionally I wouldn’t. And people would say, “Oh, well the ‘coons gotta eat, too,” it’s like, “No, if I shoot these...” We’re lucky enough to own 180 acres, my dad owned it, and my grandfather was a trapper. We’re really Isleños, you know? So he, he got the land for a ridiculous price back in 1920s. And he trapped muskrats off of it. And with the opening of MRGO, of course it ran all the muskrats out.


JOE: Mr. Go? The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet? That which—the superhighway to the gulf? That which allowed the flood to occur in St. Bernard Parish? Yeah, that MRGO.

In any event, where was I in the story? So we’re back there, for days and days. And helicopters start passing. Well, the helicopters are going by Murphy. Helicopters are going by Murphy, and we have a big sign on the door, –not on the door, on the roof– “Need medical assistance. Need help. Old, sick people.” You know, in big letters of towels, you know, where we have it all spelled out with white towels. One helicopter comes by, and comes by so close that everything’s shaking, the water is. And he looks at us, and he does like this (thumbs up signal), “Oh yeah, great! We’re seen! They’re seeing us!” He flies off. So, Sunday after the flood. It’s been a week. And we hear airboats. And we’re screaming, and we’re screaming, and we’re screaming. And the first airboat, then the second airboat passes, and somebody notices us, and they turn. And they both come up and it’s a politician, and I don’t know whether I should mention his name or not. But a politician from Central Louisiana comes in. And he sounded like he was on a stump. He said, “I’m Senator Thus-and-such, and our governor and senators asked me to come look at this to see if there’s anything we could do and they lent me this driver, and wannananana.”

And I said, “Fine. There’s two airboats,” I said, “We’ve got old, sick people here, let’s go.” And he said, “Well, wai—wai—we don’t know where the command center is–And, ho-hold on.” He gets on the radio, he says, “We’ll be right back.” And vrrruum! Off they go. So we’re running like chickens with our heads cut off, getting everything together, “He’s coming back, he’s coming back”—this is like 12 o’clock, “He’s coming back. He’s coming back.” One o’clock, he’s not back. Two o’clock, he’s not back. Three o’clock, four, five o’clock. He doesn’t come back. He doesn’t come back. So the next day, we get up, and I am in despair, at this point.

Well, I tell you what. I think that, we had been to the hump the day before. And there was nothing there. And that’s where the headquarters was. So I believe that they didn’t have anything set up. And he kept on asking us, “Is there any nursing homes in this area? Is there any, you know, photo ops in this area?” He didn’t say photo ops. But he said, “Is there any nursing homes, is there any bunches of old people?” I said, “I got a bunch of old people right here!” And I feel—I felt despair, and I felt that if I’d a said, “Senator Gautreaux, get out of this boat, and come see these people.” If he’d a saw this lady sitting back there with a bag, you know? And if he’d seen the guy with his lip hanging, I don’t think the man could have slept that night before we were rescued. Well, the next morning—and my little rival in the group says, “Yep, see? See? He ain’t coming to get us!” I said, “ Man...” By this time, I’d about had it. Because I’m disappointed, too. We’re lucky we didn’t have any altercations, ‘cause he wanted to stay until the water went down and rebuild his house. He said, “Where am I gonna go? I ain’t got nowhere to go!” It’s like, “Man, look.” “Well, where are we going to go? They’re going to put us in a tent city, we’re not going to be able to leave, and we’re going to be in jail wherever we go!” I said, “We’re American citizens, we haven’t done anything wrong. Except for looting the stores. And the police told us to do it. You know? What do you think they’re gonna…” He says, “Yeah, that’s what I think, they’re gonna put us in jail.” I said, “Okay, well, I don’t think that.”

Well, the next morning at about 11:30, we start hearing the airboat. And they’re looking for us. But they couldn’t pinpoint us. Well, they got to us about 12 o’clock. What day is this? The storm was Monday. So this was Sunday. They got to us. And they, one of the guys in another boat is a EMT, and they called him over, cause they saw the lady with the bag, and they called him over, and he comes in his airboat, and he does a cursory check on her, he says, “She needs to go now.” So we got a mattress and we picked her up, and put her in the first airboat, and her daughter, who has a raging infection on her leg from this oil and this benzene in the water. But she’s not worried about herself, she’s worried about her mom. But this was a bad infection. It was bad. And her son-in-law get on the first airboat, vrrrrram! off they go. And then the next airboat, they got the guy with the TIAs, he had three TIAs during the week. And his wife, his son, Dave. He was one of the three guys that was really helping out. And a couple of dogs that he had adopted (laughs), through the week. And, vrrrooom, off they go. And then on the last, on the last boat, it’s me and my dad and my two dogs. And Mr. Al, the neighbor from across the street, old man. And vrrrrroom, off we go.

And we get to the first command center. And the lady’s on the neutral ground. (Which is the median, you call it here.) She’s dead. She died, the lady with the bag. The lady who we kept alive for seven days. Who they took first! Who, if they’d have took her the day before, she might be with us today. And while we’re comforting Diane, the daughter, and telling her, “She’s in a better place, baby, she’s not in pain anymore.” (I don’t believe that shit, you know, but I’m telling her that she’s in a better place.)

So, we’re sitting there and waiting for our turn to get on the bus. And it didn’t take too long. So I started to get on the bus, and they said, “No dogs on the bus.” And I said, “Well, I understand. My dogs aren’t gonna take somebody’s place. Just tell me which way I should start walking.” And the guy behind me said, “Yeah, tell me which way we start walking.” And the guy behind him had a big dog, and he said, “Look, let’s put the dogs in a pirogue, and we’ll paddle out to the MRGO, which is right out there, and take a left and that’s toward Houston, right?”

And they said, “Look, y’all just go sit down in the shade, we’re dog lovers. We’re gonna fight for y’all.” And they’re arguing with somebody on the phone, and they said, “We’re fighting for y’all,” you know? And it was a good sign. And they said, “Okay, everybody with dogs come and get on this bus. And I went to get on, and they said, “I’m sorry, sir, just one dog per person.” And I said, “Look,” I said, “One of these dogs belongs to my dad.” (Winks) My dad said, “Yeah, yeah, one of these belongs to me.” So he had to hold Corky, the little beagle. And I had to hold a big 85 lb Lab in my lap. And they decontaminated us again. I think we took showers. After having not had a shower in a week, awarm shower felt wonderful, you didn’t want to get out of there. And, it was over, you know? We were put on buses. Goodbye to everybody who we had spent a week bonding with, you know? And we were put on buses and sent to the airport.

And we left my Parish, my beloved Parish, which had become a festering hell, and when we were coming to land [was] the first time I heard where we were going: “We’re entering....” – you know, whatever the name of the airport is in Austin – “where you’re gonna be for a few days, and we’re glad we could be of service, and blah, blah, blah.” We landed. And we got on the bus, and we came on a circuitous route—it seemed circuitous at the time, at least—to the Convention Center.

Every turn I thought they were going to try to take my dogs. At every turn. And we get off the bus, and the first people that come up, walked up to me and said, “About your dogs…” and I’m—I got my hackles up, “About my dogs—don’t mess with me about my dogs. I been working 28 years, and I all I have here is my dogs. And my dad. That’s it. Everything else is gone.” And he says, “No, no, sir, no. We’re from the Humane Society and want to offer your dogs a place to stay and some food and some water.” And I said, “Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding! We don’t have anything like that in New Orleans!” You know? I mean if something happened in Austin, and y’all came to New Orleans, we’d give you—we’d feed you, but we would never do what Austin did for us, you know?

So the first people to meet me off the bus was the Humane Society. And then, I must have looked like a wild man. I hadn’t had my diabetes medication or my blood pressure medication. My blood pressure gets pretty out there, you know? So I think it was like 400 over 190 or something like that. And they said, you need to go to the E.R. And I said, “Not before I talk to my daughter.” I know my daughter Christy, she’s gonna be frantic. She’s gonna say, “Well, look, I’ll just go down to St. Bernard and find him.”

They’re gonna say, “St. Bernard is totally evacuated,” and she’ll just say, “Well, I’ll go from evacuation house to evacuation house, and I’ll find ‘em.” That’s what my mind has her saying, you know? Because she’s gonna be that worried about me. Well, they had kept the news from the kid. Kids – they were adults. They had kept the news from them as much as possible. And they had evacuated them to Memphis. And within two hours, a policewoman from Austin was able to contact my daughter, and we’re on the phone crying, crying, crying. “You’re okay, Daddy?” “Yeah, I’m okay.” “Is Pa okay?” “Yeah, he’s okay. But I got some bad news, baby. There ain’t....” “The bad news, Daddy. You’re okay, and Pa’s okay,” she said. “They’re talking about there’s gonna be three or four thousand people gonna be dead in New Orleans alone, and I know it hit St. Bernard harder.” You know, she just, she’s lived there for 17 years. 18 years. And, um, we cried, and cried and cried. And then I went to the hospital. And here I am. That’s it.

Oh! I left out an important part. I did leave out an important part. I really did.

We get put on a bus, they had us on a bus with the dogs. And we go to Port Ship Service [in Arabi, Louisiana] and then we turn around and go back to a building right off of Paris Road [in St.Bernard Parish, where they began.]

And so we get off and we wash our feet—we don’t wash those feet, we decontaminate our feet. Supposedly. Then we get back on the bus and we go behind Kaiser [Hospital]. My legs are pretty beat up from climbing on the roof. But my dad’s legs are worse. And he had a lot of pus. And his nails had turned—this is kinda gross—his nails had turned yellow, and they were turning green. But we were saved. And my dad, his whole… his whole… idea… what’s the word, I’m at a loss for words… His whole goal for the week was to live. You know, he’s had four heart attacks and he wants to just live. And he lived, and he was happy. You know?

There was this little doctor, about half your size [indicates interviewer] and you could tell she was military, pure military. She’s barking orders to these 300 lb. men, and they’re running around—like it was almost comical…if it wasn’t, you know? They’re running around like, Patton is there, you know? And, uh, she comes to my dad: “Hello, Sir,” and she’s very polite. She says, “I see you’ve got some wounds here,” and she’s dressing the wounds, and she writes them down and she hands them to the guy. He runs off. And she’s dressing the wounds, and being very gentle. “You have one here, you have one back here—“ “Oh, I didn’t even know about that, yeah.” She dresses the wounds. She moves on to the next person. And she’s got somebody comes up with a stretcher. And I said, “Daddy, Daddy—you okay?” And he says, “Fine, fine.”

He’s munching contentedly on a cracker. He says, “Fine, fine, I’m all fine. Is somebody sick?” And she looks up and she says, “You are, sir. You’re getting on that stretcher, and we’re Medivac-ing you out of here,” you know? And she wasn’t a lady that you said, “But, but,” it was like, “Yes, ma’am!” (Laughs.) So he got his stuff, and laid down, and I grabbed him—like M*A*S*H, you know? You go under the helicopter…

After having nothing back there, for six days, all of a sudden everything is here. Everything. They’ve got a chopper on the ground, they’ve got a chopper waiting to land, they’ve got a chopper behind them, waiting to get in the place where they’re waiting to land, you know? It was amazing. So we ran my dad out, he hands me a piece of paper. I said, “What’s this?” “It’s just—it’s for you.” And I read it and it’s a… gives me control of the house in the event of his death. I’m the arbiter of his estate, you know? And I said, “Gee whiz, Pop. I don’t want this.” He says, “You hold it. When we get back together, we’ll tear it up, but for now, you hold it.” I said, “Okay, Daddy, now you just take it easy in that hospital.” He says, “I will. Believe me.” You know? And that was the part that I missed. You know? So they fly him off. Oh, I asked him, “Where you going?” They said, “I don’t know.” So when I got here, I contacted my daughter, and then it was—find out where my dad was. And I also had to contact my younger daughter. Who was also kinda worried about us. That’s it.

AIT: St. Bernard Parish, is…

JOE: Caught the eye [of the hurricane].

AIT: Do you think there’s any going back?

JOE: I’m going back. We’re going back to Violet. My dad had moved up the road. My brother died when I was 8 years old, he died crossing the street to go serve mass. He was twelve. And a motorcycle hit him. And he was nearly decapitated. But my mom wouldn’t live in that house any more. And I can understand her point of view. You know? I really can. But my dad loved, loved that place.

AIT: Tell me more about your dad’s history there. And your family’s history there.

JOE: My grandfather was a trapper. For a living. And that’s what he did in the old days, he trapped muskrats.

AIT: Was he born in Louisiana

JOE: Oh, yeah. Our family’s here from 1787. Everybody’s born down there. So he sold the property to my dad, who built a proper house, ’cause they had, you know, one of the old shotguns with holes in the walls, and whatnot. And my dad knocked that down and built a proper brick house. And we lived in that until my brother got killed and then my mother wouldn’t let him stay, couldn’t stay there. And I guess I understand that, but my dad had the lawn manicured like a golf course, you know? He’d come home everyday and do yard work. Tomatoes, he had 64 chickens. I remember Hurricane Betsy. I remember it. And we went out there in the eye of Hurricane Betsy. And the chickens were okay, and then after the storm, the chicken house had been knocked down, and most of them were dead. Yeah. We ate chicken for a month after that. My dad is a wonderful, wonderful dad.

AIT: What was your childhood like?

JOE: Well, my childhood was happy until my brother died. And then it was uneven, because my parents were very shook up by the death of my brother. They’ve never gotten over it. But it took them 10 years just to say his name, you know? We were a close family.

AIT: Where did you go to school?

JOE: I went to school, for a few years at Bormeth [?] Elementary, right in the area. And then went to school at St. Mark’s School. Which is in Chalmette, right around the corner from my house. Went there from 3rd to 8th grade. Then spent the year in Chalmette, then went to the high school seminary in Texas for a couple of years. Spent that same year in Chalmette. Went back to the seminary for a couple of years, and realized that there was one thing that I couldn’t deal with as a seminarian, or priest. Other than that, I’d a probably made my way. But celibacy for a nineteen year old is next to impossible. At least for this nineteen year old. But they understood that that was probably one of the most common reasons. Had I thought it out? Hell yeah, I’d thought it out, I’d been thinking about that since, hell knows when. But it was a good experience. Learned a lot.

AIT: Where did you teach?

JOE: Oh. I’ve been teaching 20 years. I taught for a few years in St. Bernard Parish, in Plaquemines Parish, a year in Orleans. And then I took some time off for a return-to-roots things. Yeah, I wanted to see what it was like to be a trapper and a hunter for a living. Yes, ma’am. Never worked so hard, been so poor, in all my life. Worked from morning till night. And was poorer than a.... whatever you can say. It was tough. It was tough. If I could have made a living at it—money’s not real important to me. You know? I studied for the priesthood, I believe a lot of those ideals. You know? I believe—I truly believe, my daughter holds the same belief—that the reason we’ve gotten so much help here, in Austin, is karma. You know? I spent most of my life helping other people. And, I come here, and it’s almost like I’m picked out of a crowd. You know? Here, let me be your benefactor. And that is wonderful.

AIT: I’d come back love to interview you again so I can get a really good grip on what that culture’s about.

JOE: Yeah, it is an interesting culture. From the home remedies they use, to the utensils they use, to the way they harvested game. I know my uncle, or my dad’s uncle was a market hunter, and he would shoot ducks and put them on a line. You know nothing like limits, you know? And put them on the highway. What he didn’t sell on the highway, that day, he’d bring them up to the restaurants in New Orleans, that would snap ‘em up. I think they paid less for them, it must have been. There were market hunters, and fisherman, and my grandfather was a trapper. What he knew how to do, you know? He was good at it. You know? 

Please explore our new digital archive of oral histories. We encourage you to read, reflect, and respond to these stories. Click here to open a separate window.



Return to Alive in Truth Homepage Austin Community Foundation