Published – GulfLatitudes.com
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert
“I’ve got ¾ 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 start 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.” Dennis Raziano and three other brave souls rode out Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath onboard their boats in the marinas of New Orleans’ West End. Never advisable, their observations were later crucial to the Army Corps of Engineers and the marina became a refuge for residents who conducted rescues throughout Lakeview and beyond.
There are two large marinas in the recreational boating heart of New Orleans at West End numbering almost 1,000 boat slips and before the storm were both home to a thriving liveaboard boating community. The largest, Municipal Yacht Harbor, is the least protected to the effects of hurricanes and during Katrina, nearly 80% of the boats were lost as they began breaking free of their lines and cascading into each other like dominos. The Orleans Marina just to the south at West End is better protected and has covered piers which would eventually hold fast any boat loosed by the wind and as such only experienced about 20% boat losses.
With the first feeder bands coming through the city on August 29th and the winds of the northeast 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 valuable resource for the Army Corps of Engineers in documenting the storm surge. By 11:00pm on Sunday night, 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′ shrimp boat Kaui Girl that he’d converted into a house boat, Raziano had never seen the water rise higher than the main cement piers, but by 4:00am 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.”
As the eye of the storm neared landfall, the winds began to clock in the 50-80 mph range and it wasn’t long before sustained pressure was pounding the city at higher levels with gusts bouncing over 100 mph. Only a few boat slips down on the same pier as Raziano, Kevin Stouffel was riding out the storm on his 41′ sailboat. He states, “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.”
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 his pilothouse, 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 West End Park, the winds were somewhat diminished. Over to the west there were a series of restaurants including the Dock and Brunings built out over the water, but once all that collapsed into the waves 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 it started getting nuts. In the Orleans 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 Lakeview 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.”
To the north in Municipal Yacht Harbor, Captain Mike Howell was onboard his heavily secured 55′ steel hulled workboat Mañana. Capt. Howell was a legend in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast – he passed away in 2011. Having lost an arm in Vietnam at the age of 17, Capt. Howell eventually earned his Captain’s license and has had two books written about his experiences on the water including his actions during the Mariel Boat Lift from Cuba and the infamous Bayou of Pigs incident involving mercenaries and a plot to take control of the Caribbean island of Domenica in 1982.
No stranger to the water, Capt. Howell’s boat was secured in the marina with iron chains and easily withstood the onslaught and soup of crashing boats and seas. As the weather moderated, he plowed Mañana through the debris of the marina and boathouses and then past the Southern Yacht Club which was consumed in fire. Heading towards the U.S. Coast Guard station in Bucktown, he passed the mouth of the 17th Street Canal and his massive boat began to get sucked into the canal, which as Capt. Howell described, “That wasn’t normal.”
All were unaware that less than a football field away, a floodwall in the 17th Street Canal had collapsed and was filling Lakeview and the city with water.
With communications non-existent, Stouffel grew increasingly concerned about his wife and mother who had ridden out the storm in nearby Lake Vista, but it wasn’t until Tuesday that the water levels in the marina had dropped significantly to where he could walk out onto the cement piers from his sailboat. Having learned on the radio that the levee walls had failed 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.
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.
By Wednesday morning, West End’s sailmakers, boat repairmen and boaters arrived from the mostly dry portions of Bucktown and began conducting rescues from West End. The mish mash group of locals commandeered small flatboats and dinghies and made runs out into the immediate neighborhoods of Lakeview and Lake Vista 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 and the group began to make runs further and further out into the mayhem. With the flood waters reaching nearly 12′ in parts of Lakeview, 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 in Gentilly 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 and West End, over 350 people were eventually discovered to have drowned in their homes or attics.
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 to the boaters. The Coast Guard station and the higher ground of West End and the levees quickly became a staging ground and Capt. Howell onboard his workboat was able to provide power and even showers to the first responders docked next to the Coast Guard station.
Orleans Marina became an island of safety and a refuge for many New Orleanians with some living on their boats for months afterwards out of necessity. The days out at the marina turned into weeks and the group of liveaboards 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.”
~ More Post-K storm photos can be found HERE.
~ Photos of the current (2015) state of New Orleans’ Municipal Harbor can be foundHERE.