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Escape on Chef Highway

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Robert Moore graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in May. The 21-year-old had just begun his first week at Tulane Law School when Hurricane Katrina hit.

Robert lived with his mother, Ava Lee Moore, who had moved him, his brothers Michael and John back home to New Orleans a few years ago after living in Brooklyn for 15 years. A single parent, she was an assistant principal at Nelson Elementary School, a University of New Orleans charter school.

The family lived in New Orleans East, a predominately Black neighborhood in an area known as Sherwood Forrest, near Bullard Avenue and Wright Road, not far from Chef Menteur Highway.

This is the first-person account of how Robert and his mother survived Hurricane Katrina.

-- as told to Anita Samuels


To share your stories of survival, e-mail webeditor@essence.com

 

On Sunday night (August 28), as my mom slept, I sat and watched the devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused. We were sleeping on the floor under the dining room table. I stayed up the whole night answering phone calls letting people know we were OK and communicating with my mother’s friend Sharon and her daughter who were in Harvey in Jefferson parish.

On Monday (August 29) around 6:30 a.m., my mom woke up and the phones went out. We watched out the back door as the storm ripped trees out of the ground and knocked some of the bricks from our neighbor’s shed into our back yard. We still figured that we were OK at that point, so we were just watching out the windows as the wind did its damage.

As I went to my bedroom on the first floor, I heard a light fixture collapse in the kitchen and we realized it was leaking. We put buckets down to collect the water, thinking that we were seeing the worst. I went upstairs and saw the roof was leaking as well, and all my law school books and clothes were getting wet. So we moved some things back downstairs and others to the hallway on the second floor. While we were doing that, I heard a loud crash and went into John's room on the second floor and I could see outside through the roof.

At that point, I told my mother to leave everything and come downstairs so the roof wouldn’t cave in on us. Of course, I had to fight with her because she wanted to save everything that she could. While we were downstairs, leaks started to sprout everywhere because the water was coming straight through to the first floor. We were sitting there thinking that the house might fully collapse. We could see the nearby roof of my Aunt’s Iris’ house, which looked fine, so we took the keys and went into her house.


I called the police and anybody else I could and told them of our situation. They didn’t have much sympathy as they felt that we were warned to evacuate. They told us that they wouldn’t send their officers into harm’s way. As my mom lay down on my aunt’s couch to take a nap, I stood and watched the telephone poles outside swaying towards the house. As my mom slept, the water started to rise outside, but we calculated the storm could only last so much longer, and the water wasn’t in the house yet so we would be safe.

In about a half hour, the water from the street reached the front door of my aunt’s house. I began to hear the water slowly trickle into the house. It wasn’t long before it was at my ankles. I woke up my mom and told her we needed to get out of this house because it was only one story. We put on some of my cousin’s and aunt’s heavy clothes and took what we still had in hand and went outside. We put on heavy clothes because we didn't know what the future held and if we would be stuck outdoors in wind and rain. At the time we both had on shorts and the water was cold. We also made sure to put identification in our pockets. When we got outside, the water was higher -- almost to our knees.

We began to walk to the corner thinking that maybe a boat would come pick us up. I didn’t want to walk that far because I didn’t know how deep the water would be at the corner. We noticed that our neighbor was still in his house with his son, two daughters and two grandbabies. We knocked on their door and they let us climb in the window where the water hadn’t reached yet. We stayed for a few hours and waited as the hurricane passed. They had radio and so we just hung onto the daily updates.

We sat there in the house talking, but after the hurricane ended, we realized the water was still rising. That’s when we heard the news about dead bodies floating in Eastover and that a breach in the levee was why the water was still rising. We stayed there for a few hours and we decided to go back to our house because the storm was over. We got to our house but our neighbors wouldn’t come in. They went up to their attic. We went to our house, and took what was still dry and salvageable up to the second floor.

Around 6 p.m., just before dark, we saw our neighbor across the street on top of his house. He said his wife and son were in the attic and he was trying to get his boat to start but he couldn’t. He somehow found help as he walked towards the sound of boats with his air horn and came back with the National Guard. When they came back, I yelled to (the guardsmen) and they said they saw us and that they would be back for us. So we went inside, packed a bag and went downstairs into the water, which was at our hips, and waited for about two hours. As it began to get dark, we decided they probably weren't coming so we went back upstairs and dried off. We spent the night there, slept for a few hours and called out to our neighbors to make sure they were fine.

At the first sign of light (Tuesday, August 30), we could hear helicopters, so I went out on the roof and we spent the majority of the morning waving at helicopters that were probably filming us as opposed to trying to save us. My neighbor actually talked about firing his gun at them to get their attention. We had light reflectors and
noisemakers and everything shining at them. We heard other people firing guns off and what not. We saw a boat come down around our street and we called out and they said they would come but they never did.

By that afternoon, I began to hear people screaming and panicking in their attics. One neighbor decided to walk and see how far we could get. He came back and told us that the water was still only about four feet and that we could walk to the highway. The only problem was that the radio was reporting that a shark was spotted in the water in Jefferson parish and there were a lot of snakes in the water in our neighborhood and we had two babies.

As we began to plan to make our walk, we heard another boat and we flagged it down. Before we gathered everything to leave, my mom and I walked back to Aunt Iris' house and saved what we could of pictures and diplomas and files and put them up as high as possible. We walked back to our house, took a few things and got in the boat. People in the boat were crying as we had to leave our homes. When we went down the street, we could see a lot of people still standing by their houses with water up to their chests.

We got up to Chef Menteur Highway, right behind our house, and somebody took us in a truck down Chef to the bus depot, where the man who owned it had opened as a place for evacuees from the neighborhood. We stayed there all day with the boats bringing back more and more people. There were officers who had stayed and were in there with us. They cut the locks on nearby stores and got food out and we barbecued and ate. There was shrimp, boiled crabs, red beans, hot sausage and the like.

A lot of people got really drunk and some started hitting on the women as well, so we had to keep the women and children we knew close by as it got darker. While it was still light, I took a jog outside because I had seen the Orleans Levee District Police riding up and down Chef Highway. I got up to Chef and saw that they were set up there. They had been stationed in a hotel during the hurricane, got stranded and had to be rescued. They had taken a hall and turned that into their station, but they couldn’t really use their radios so they were as stranded as we were. I told them that if they got desperate we had Greyhound-size buses at the depot.

Some of the officers were going into the car lots trying to take cars. But most of them didn’t have gas and we really had nowhere to go because there was water on portions of the Interstate. There were rescue missions still going on and everyone was telling stories about people who had died in their houses, which they had to leave behind or of electrical fires that had left them in the street during the hurricane.

As night fell, some people went to sleep but most stayed awake, worried that the water was going to eventually rise up to Chef Highway because it was rising on both sides of us. There were rumors that they were going to flood certain areas to relieve the pressure on the levee. I took a nap for about an hour early that morning (Wednesday, August 31) when the sun started to rise. People came running in saying that we needed to pack our
bags because we were leaving on the buses and the police were here. When we went outside, the police said we were in a state of martial law.

They told us to get on the buses and get out because nobody was coming to save us. They moved through the place with heavy artillery, starting every car that they could and then they left. We loaded up the buses and got on all the people that we could. Some people were walking up trying to get on, but we couldn’t take them all, so a lot of people were standing outside crying. Some people had to leave pets, so they were crying and some actually stayed behind with their animals. We did make the trip with about five dogs.

As we began to drive up Chef Highway, there were thousands of people there. More boats were going into the neighborhood on rescue missions. There were people on Chef Highway under party tents with barbecue grills just living out there. We had to pass them all by. They waved at us and made all kinds of signals to us so that we wouldn’t forget about them. All together, we had several buses and one limo bus.

We got on the Interstate and could see that behind us, towards Morrison, there was a portion covered in water and people were on the other side trying to get across. We drove past the Almonaster exit, where in the lower Ninth Ward, everything was covered in water. You could see just the roofs of most of the houses. There were people boating to the Interstate and getting on there. It looked like some of the military was there with them. As you got closer to the 6-10 split, you could just see more and more people and everything in that area was under water.

We actually had to drive through water when we got to the lower Ninth Ward area. As we headed towards uptown, there were thousands of people on the interstate waving at us. Some looked confused as to how we got those buses. We drove past Canal Street, which was under water and stuff was just floating down Canal Street. When we got to St. Charles, it was dry, but it is probably under water by now.

We continued to drive and headed toward Houma then Algiers and nobody would let us get gas because they were saving it for military vehicles. We finally got to Baton Rouge and ended up at the ABC News studio. They wouldn’t let us inside to use the bathrooms, phone or phone books, but they tried to bring cameras out to get coverage. Then people started cursing and yelling. They told us to go back to the bus. The bus dropped us off at the River Center in downtown Baton Rouge. As we pulled up, I saw I saw an old classmate, a guy from high school that I played in band with, and who was volunteering there. After I got inside, I walked around the place until I found him among the 16,000 people and he brought my mom and me up to his dorm on LSU’s campus, which is where I am now.
So there is my story. I know I’ve been blessed. I prayed a lot, and God and me discussed how this wasn’t my time. I still got a lot of living left to do. I was confident we would live; I just didn’t know how we were going to get out of there, but we made it, and we are safe and sound. We are waiting for Adrian (my mother’s best friend’s son) and John to come pick us up.

Robert and his mother are still in Baton Rouge while arrangements are being made for them to catch a flight to Atlanta where they’ll reunite with his brother John and stay at the home of Adrian Florence, his mother’s best friend’s son.

The Moores, along with thousands of others, have lost everything they owned. If you’d like to make a donation to the family, please click here.

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