11. A canoe trip

Another of Bart Bragg’s lieutenants who did not worry a lot about her personal situation was Dawn Horvath (who was widely known around the bank by her maiden name, Ricks).  A New Orleans native, Horvath and her husband, Rudy, always had ridden out storms.  They planned to do it again at their Paris Avenue home in Lake Terrace, with their 18-month-old, Rudy, Jr., and a Catahoula hound named “Bayou.”

Their section of the city, two blocks from Lake Pontchartrain’s levee and close to the University of New Orleans, had never flooded.  They thought they would stay rather than endure the tribulation of evacuating.

———-

Paddled their way to safety

DAWN RICKS HORVATH: Paddled in a canoe to safety / Photo: Russ Hoadley

DAWN RICKS HORVATH: Paddled in a canoe to safety
/ Photo: Russ Hoadley

Dawn Horvath, 37, was manager of the applications group.  She worked for Hibernia a total of eight years, the first two as a contractor.  She and her husband, Rudy, a history teacher and coach at Cabrini High School, had been married 13 years.  They have a son, Rudy, Jr., 18 months, and a dog named  “Bayou.”  The Horvaths rode out Katrina at their home in Lake Terrace with little damage.  Then the levees broke.  They paddled a borrowed canoe to safety, then made their way to Baton Rouge and Shreveport.

Horvath continued working there until they bought a used trailer and brought it back to New Orleans.  Why not get a new FEMA trailer?  “We didn’t want anything from the government.  We just wanted to be left alone to do what we needed to do and get back in our house.

“When people ask me, ‘Would you do anything different’, my standard comment is, It wasn’t the storm that got us, it was the Corps ((U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).”

———-

Important player

Horvath was an important player on the disaster recovery team.  A thorough “techie,” she was responsible for a key application used in branches known as TouchPoint.

Her 34-person department also was responsible for various databases and CPUs.  She expected to be part of the tech group stationed at the Hibernia Center to work through the storm and its aftermath.

What is worse?

Family and friends pleaded with her to leave.  She shrugged them off with the logic of a young mother:  What would be worse, a hurricane or driving hours with a small child in contra-flow traffic?

By Saturday, she and her husband thought again about getting out.  In addition to the worsening forecast, they had agreed at the last minute to take care of her father-in-law’s dog.

Still, they decided to stay.  They drove around, making preparations, seeing many places boarded up.  They stocked the attic of their one-story home with food and water, supplies for the two dogs, an axe, a chainsaw, flashlights and cellphones.  They also blew up their son’s “Dr. Pepper boat,” a small inflatable raft.  Who knew, it might come in handy.  Through these chores, Horvath continued to participate in IMT calls.

FLOOD CAME AFTER STORM: Rudy Horvath holds his son, Rudy Jr., and surveys his yard / Photo: Dawn Ricks Horvath

FLOOD CAME AFTER STORM: Rudy Horvath holds his son, Rudy Jr., and surveys his yard / Photo: Dawn Ricks Horvath

Hunkering down

Sunday night, as the sky turned angry and the wind picked up, they hunkered down.  They lost electricity about 1:30 a.m., Monday.  “It was a rocky night,” she recalled.  Then, cellphones quit, and Horvath “fell off the IMT calls.”  Nevertheless, they slept in their own beds that night and felt reasonably safe.

Monday morning was “interesting – no electricity, no phone, only an ice chest.”  A neighbor’s roof landed in their new swimming pool.Their sliding glass doors rattled when wind gusts hammered them.  Trees were stripped of leaves.  The wind shifted and blew pieces of their chimney loose.  A brick fence fell over and crushed a waterline, creating an impromptu fountain.  Treetops were ripped from lurching trunks.

They listened to news on WWL radio and by 3 p.m., the worst seemed over.  They congratulated themselves.  They had made it in their own home through a big storm.  “We were quite pleased with ourselves.”  They made a cursory survey and guessed they might have $10,000 of windstorm damage.  “We thought, thank God, and we don’t even have to sit in traffic to come back home!”

Something was different

Around 5 p.m., the couple ventured out again.  Something was different.

Now there was water in their street where there had been none before.  When they looked down Robert E. Lee Boulevard, the road connecting them with the rest of the city, “We could see there was water coming toward us.”  On the radio, they began to hear reports of people stuck in houses.  “We didn’t know why, so we thought, ‘Why don’t they just turn the pumps on’?”  Then, they heard a report that “they had evacuated all of the pump people, and they couldn’t get back into the city.  What an asinine plan that was!”

Back inside, the couple played with their baby and watched nervously as the water rose.  About 7 p.m., it began to seep into the house.  “It was creepy.”  They scurried to the attic.  The water rose about an inch an hour.  Of course, both the baby and the dogs wanted to play in it.  “We thought surely the water would go down because it was creeping so slowly.  We just assumed they would turn on the pumps.”

Rising water, pitch darkness

And it was hot.  The couple moved to the stairway landing, with little Rudy on a cushion, and shifted the dogs into the attic, with the door open, and 50 pounds of dog food and gallons of water.  They were “just hanging out up there … they were very calm, which was kind of weird.”   Now they faced water and pitch black darkness.  “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.  There were no street lights, there was nothing – no noise, it was so quiet, obviously no traffic, no helicopters flying at night.”

In rubber boots, they trudged through their house as it continued to fill slowly.  “This is bad,” Dawn remembered saying.  She worried about their parents – “Nervous Annie types” – because they could not tell them what was happening.  “If this is on the news, my Mom would completely freak out.”

They watched their car succumb to the rising water.  However, a car was pointless by now, Horvath realized.

In the dark, they heard an eerie call for help from a neighbor.  “There was an autistic guy … his Mom was very ill.  Apparently, they had stayed.  There was nothing we could do, and that was the worst feeling in the world.”  (Later, Horvath learned that they were rescued four days after the storm.)

As the water rose, Dawn and Rudy listened to the radio from their perch on the landing.  Eventually, they heard that levee walls had been breached, but they did not know if that was the cause of their flooding.  The reports seemed to focus on the 17th Street Canal on the edge of Metairie and the Industrial Canal in the 9th Ward.  Both were some distance from their home.[1]

'MUNCHKIN': Little Rudy remembered a neighbor had a boat / Photo: Dawn Ricks Horvath

‘MUNCHKIN’: Little Rudy remembered a neighbor had a boat
/ Photo: Dawn Ricks Horvath

Now marooned

Regardless of the source, a rising sea of stinking water had marooned them.  Not able to sleep, they began thinking about who might have a boat nearby.

Their son often talked about a neighbor’s pirogue, which he would point at in a garage when passing by during walks.  Maybe they could get it.

Rudy thought they might be able to paddle to Cabrini High School, where he was a history teacher and track coach.  He had keys to the school, and they might be able to stay there.  “Great idea, babe.  Let’s do that,” Dawn said.

Tuesday morning, Rudy got into his toddler’s “Dr. Pepper boat” and paddled to the neighbor’s garage.  Dawn watched anxiously, trying to keep the baby from playing in the filthy water.  She moved into the rear of their pickup truck, thinking it might be drier.  Her “little guy” wanted to know what they were doing.  “Waiting for Dad, buddy,” was all she could reply.

First try a failure

Dawn recalled that Rudy, “… normally a very calm individual, is now nervous, which brings out the nervousness on my behalf.  We stood in the kitchen and we wracked our little brains.  Where else had we seen a boat?”  Rudy returned empty-handed, needing tools to get the boat out.  Before he could get back, though, other neighbors took the boat.  Later, Dawn learned they had paddled to the lakefront, were picked up by the military and bused to safety.  “We don’t really talk to those people anymore,” she said.

They remembered an acquaintance a block away who had told them once that he had canoes and kayaks.  If they ever wanted to borrow one, he had said offhandedly, “just come on over.”  They never had, and they were not sure of his address, but they could look him up in the phone book.  Sure enough, there it was, 1612 Lisbon.  “I’ll never forget that address as long as I live.”

Rudy went out again.  It was comical in a way, Dawn thought, her husband paddling off in their kid’s toy boat, trying to find a bigger one for their escape.

When he returned in a red canoe, she felt a wave of relief:  “Come on, munchkin man,” she told her son. “We’re getting out of here.”

They loaded a few clothes, baby items, food and water into the canoe and made sure the dogs had plenty of food and water in the attic.  They planned to paddle three miles to the high school, then Rudy would return for the dogs.

NEIGHBORHOOD AT SEA: The Horvaths paddle down Robert E. Lee Boulevard over the tops of cars / Photo: Dawn Ricks Horvath

NEIGHBORHOOD AT SEA: The Horvaths paddle down Robert E. Lee Boulevard over the tops of cars / Photo: Dawn Ricks Horvath

A canoe ride

Dawn sat in the bow with a red umbrella to shade her son.  In the stern, her husband used the only paddle.  They glided down Paris Road, then Robert E. Lee Boulevard, witnessing the grim result of the levee failures.  They passed over the tops of cars, which they could see in the murky water below.  From a house, they heard a cry, a woman’s voice, “Help me, help me.”  Dawn wrote down the address and called back to her that they would send help.

They made their way to the corner of Robert E. Lee and Wisner.  The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity looked serene, its image reflected in a vast new lake.  The couple clung to a streetlight while getting their bearings.  They decided to paddle south in Bayou St. John, rather than over the Wisner roadway, thinking they might be safer, perhaps avoid more sunken cars or downed trees and power lines.  As they paddled, they could see people in houses along the east bank (some were sitting on porches, having cocktails).  They also noticed higher parts of Wisner were relatively dry.

A helicopter ride

At Filmore Avenue, they found a small bridge over the bayou, with many stranded people.  They were “barbequing, hanging out, I guess because it was a dry spot,” Dawn said.  The couple decided to stop there rather than continue on to the high school.

ODDLY SERENE: Greek Othodox Church on Robert E. Lee is mirrored in the water surrounding it / Photo: Dawn Ricks Horvath

ODDLY SERENE: Greek Othodox Church on Robert E. Lee is mirrored in the water surrounding it / Photo: Dawn Ricks Horvath

Soon, a small helicopter landed.  A sheriff’s deputy pointed: “You with the baby, I highly suggest that you come with us.”  He told them there was no room for their food or clothing stashed in the canoe, so they left it behind, calling to others to use whatever they could.

The helicopter was a “bubble” type with no doors.  The deputy strapped the two Rudys in together, and Dawn was able to carry the diaper bag.  “I remember hooking my arm under big Rudy’s, and we locked arms.  Little Rudy freaked out about the noise … The guy straps me in and says, ‘Don’t be afraid, you will not fall out’.”

As they swooped across the city, Dawn opened her eyes and saw the flooded interstate highways (“just humps”) and the immensity of the catastrophe.  “Oh, my God, look at our beautiful city,” she thought.  “That was when it really hit home, that this was not going to be a couple of days.”

Ordeal at the hospital

They were dropped off near Ochsner Hospital on Jefferson Highway.  The pilot told them they could get help at the hospital, and then the chopper whirred away.  As they approached the medical facility, a burly security guard hustled up and told them they could not stay, that it was not an evacuation center.  “Well, what are we supposed to do,” Ricks asked in frustration, “Get shot in the street?”

The guard relented and put them in a waiting room with other evacuees who had strayed in.  The group became known to hospital personnel as the “Red Cross people.”  There were no facilities to speak of, only some portable toilets in the parking lot and a few sofas and chairs inside.  The floor was strewn with glass from broken windows.

Little Rudy tried to clean up the glass bits.  It was very quiet.  Curiously, a water fountain was running.   Hospital officials came and scolded them for coming there, saying they could not provide any assistance.  Indeed, they offered no food or drinks.

———-

Most humbling experience of my life … not being able to feed my son.

———-

Scolded for coming to the hospital

Dawn had half a bag of animal crackers for her son.  She now regretted having to leave everything at the Filmore bridge.  Snack machines in the complex were empty, except for cans of Dr. Pepper.  Later, a student nurse took some pity and gave her two slices of white bread.  Little Rudy ate it and drank Dr. Pepper.  “It was the most humbling experience of my life,” she recalled, “not being able to feed my son.”

That evening, someone brought the couple ID bracelets that permitted them to go to the cafeteria for leftover red beans and rice, one plate per bracelet.  An evacuee knew an Ochsner nurse.  She was able to “score showers for us, like in prison,” but with a hitch.  The bathroom had no lights, so they had to figure it all out in the dark.  Nevertheless, they felt better after a wash, even though they had no clean clothes.

HOSPITAL STAY: Dawn Ricks Horvath tries to play with her son in hospital waiting room / Photo: Rudy Horvath

HOSPITAL STAY: Dawn Ricks Horvath tries to play with her son in hospital waiting room / Photo: Rudy Horvath

Sleeping on chairs

In the waiting area, they tried to turn some sofas into makeshift beds, but around 11 p.m., a security guard kicked them out, sending them to another room where there were only chairs.  They shoved two together for a makeshift crib for their “munchkin.”  Dawn curled up on a couple of more chairs next to her son and slept with her hand on him.  “I didn’t want him to fall out or be picked up by somebody.”  Big Rudy slept on the floor.

When Wednesday arrived, the couple was able to get breakfast using the ID bracelets.  Another evacuee befriended Little Rudy, offering Cheerios and two bottles of juice.  Later, she told them a bus might be coming to take patients and family members to Baton Rouge.  Maybe they could wangle seats.

They waited.  Then someone told them they needed to walk to the other side of the hospital for the bus.  An elderly man with luggage stumbled and fell.  Dawn helped him walk.  It was a long way.

Again, they waited.  Then someone told the couple there would be no room for them.  Later, however, that changed, and they were told there might be seats.

Next, officials announced they could not find the driver.  Although Rudy Horvath was licensed to drive a school bus, and offered to help, they declined.  Eventually, they found their driver.

Looked like Venice

Traveling down the Causeway Boulevard overpass above Airline Drive, they glanced at the road below.  Flooded, it “looked like a canal in Venice, Italy.”  They also saw crowds at the intersection of Causeway and I-10 waiting to be evacuated.

Nearing Baton Rouge, Dawn tried to use her cellphone to text a cousin there.  When she could not get through, for the first time since their ordeal started, she began to cry.  Another passenger noticed and helped them find a ride to her cousin’s home, where they began to sort things out.

“We needed to get some place, ground ourselves awhile and think about what had happened to us,” Ricks recalled

———-

Other extraordinary efforts

Mike Altman, manager of telecommunications, found he had to re-invent the company’s voicemail system after it went down in the Hibernia Center.With help from Capital One, his team installed a completely new system in Shreveport practically overnight.  His group also helped make dramatic changes to move call center operations after the New Orleans site was closed.

***

Ray Berni, in network engineering, was instrumental in getting all of the computer network functions operating.  And when employees went to new locations, which hundreds did, he got them access to the network and applications they needed.  A good example was the 200 new computer terminals installed at the Benton Road branch in Shreveport.  These required significant network and bandwidth expansion.

***

Robin Grunwald, another of Bragg’s top players, was responsible for “basically recovering all our bank systems.”  She ran the company’s computer disaster recovery test every year.  Her group also ran the computer help desk and network operations center.  Mainframe aside, she was responsible for recovering all of the bank’s 150 systems.  For the person Bragg called his “right hand,” it was an especially difficult time.  Her mother-in-law died in Miami, and she could not reach her husband for a while.  Eventually, Grunwald connected with him and managed to leave briefly for the funeral.

———-

By Thursday, she and Rudy had contacted other family.  “They thought we were dead.”  Little Rudy now was clean, well fed and dressed in borrowed clothes.  Like thousands of other New Orleanians stranded in Baton Rouge, the Horvaths went out and bought a new vehicle, a pickup truck, to replace the one they lost.  Then – again like thousands of others – they drove to Wal-Mart to buy clothes and other necessities.Safely in Baton Rouge

Friday morning, they struck out for Shreveport.  When they arrived, Dawn went right to work, and her two Rudys crashed in an office nearby.

17th STREET LEVEE: Chinook helicopter drops big bags of sand to close up breach / Photo: Patrick Kadow

17th STREET LEVEE: Chinook helicopter drops big bags of sand to close up breach / Photo: Patrick Kadow

Back for the dogs

Nine days later, Big Rudy made it back for their dogs, with a friend, Patrick Kadow, a Hibernia systems engineer.  “We brought a canoe,” Kadow remembered, in case they had to go out on Lake Pontchartrain and paddle to the house.

Instead, they parked near the 17th Street Canal levee and walked over what was left of a pedestrian bridge near the lake.  Chinook helicopters hovered overhead dropping huge sandbags into the gaping breach.  They hitchhiked on a recovery truck down Lakeshore Drive to Paris Road.  “It was total carnage out there.”  The two waded down the street to Horvath’s home.  The dogs were all right – lonely, but with food and water to spare.

“We did get questioned by military guys as we were coming out.  They thought we might be looting, but we showed them some ID and the two dogs swimming with us.  The water was still up to our waists in spots, but mostly it was knee deep,” Kadow said.  On Robert E. Lee, another truck picked them up and carried them back to the 17th Street Canal.

  • ‘We almost decided to go to the Hibernia Center’.  (The people there had to be evacuated in rubber life rafts, sleep overnight in a parking garage and be airlifted out by helicopter).Later, as Horvath reflected on the ordeal, she thought, “Look how fortunate we were.”  She recalled the decisions they almost made which might have turned out worse:
  • ‘We tried to get a chopper to pick us up at our house.’  (It might have taken them to the Superdome or Convention Center).
  • ‘We wanted to go to Cabrini.’  (Who would they have encountered there, and how long would they have been stranded?)

Nevertheless, the plucky young woman admitted “… There’s so much guilt … I’m still apologizing on a regular basis.”

[1] Another catastrophic levee wall breach caused the flooding in their neighborhood.  It was at the London Avenue Canal, not far from where they lived.  It took some time for this breach to be reported.

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