Marina Refuge

Riding Out Hurricane Katrina in the Marinas of New Orleans

Published: Latitudes & Attitudes
November 2006

Ask anyone whether they think it would be a good idea to ride out Hurricane Katrina aboard a boat in a New Orleans marina and it is almost guaranteed that they wouldn’t even think it was a real question.

But that was the hurricane plan for three New Orleans liveaboards who were only expecting one heck of a wicked night out on their boats. What they got instead were three weeks of hell, camaraderie and heroism.

In a city home to many people living eccentric lifestyles, it should come as no surprise that New Orleans has a very active liveaboard population, and one that has truly evolved into a neighborhood of long time friends living in an almost communal setting. This kinship served them well through the storm and then again as the floodwaters left them isolated with civilization breaking down, and the marina rapidly became a small island of refuge in those darkest of days.

As all New Orleanians did, the liveaboards went to bed Friday night comfortable in the knowledge that Katrina was still expected to make landfall near Pensacola, but they woke the next morning to the news that a Cat 5 hurricane was going to be paying the city a visit in under 36 hours. The mad scramble of hurricane preparations quickly ensued with many of the liveaboards actively securing the boats of absent owners after providing for their own.

With preparations winding down, the vast majority of the liveaboards opted to evacuate the city, many who had never left for a hurricane before, but Dennis Raziano, a part-time liveaboard who has spent nearly 28 years in the marina, jokingly explains, “Yeah, that’s my hurricane plan. I evacuate my home on the northshore of Lake Pontchartrain sending my wife off to stay with family in Greenville, MS and I come south 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 on his boat since Camille in 1969. One pier over, his neighbor, Kevin Stoufflet is similar having never evacuated his boat since 1981, but Stoufflet adds, “It was never like this one.”

The Orleans Marina is one of three large New Orleans marinas located along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, which is actually not a lake, but more of a bay or large tidal lagoon opening on one end to the waters of the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. Built as a WPA program in the 1930’s, Orleans is by far the most well protected of the marinas, existing as an inner harbor surrounded by the much larger Municipal Harbor, several yacht clubs, a large park, boathouses, restaurants and high-rise condominiums. It is outside the protection of the levee system and its southern side is a large securable seawall that rises 13.6 feet above sea level. Within the marina, the boats are easily floating near the rooftop level of the many houses of Lakeview just beyond the supposed protection of the levees. The now infamous 17th Street Canal breach is a mere 250 yards away.

With the first feeder bands coming through the city and the winds of the northwest quadrant of the storm furiously pouring water into the lake by way of the Rigolets, Raziano began documenting the water levels in the marina, which would later become an invaluable resource for the Army Corps of Engineers. By 11:00pm on Sunday, the water levels had easily swallowed up the wooden finger piers and Katrina was still nearly 200 miles from New Orleans.

In his 28 years on his 34’shrimp boat Kaui Girl which he had converted to a house boat, Raziano has never seen the water rise higher than the main cement piers, but by 4:00am the water was getting ready to match that and the eye of the storm was still five hours away. He adds, “Once you make all the ropes, there’s really nothing that you can do except hold on, ride it out.”

As 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 easy gusts bouncing into the 130’s. Raziano describes, “Once the winds got really high, they clocked them at 120-130 mph through the marina. 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. But when the wind runs through them, they start moaning and the vibrations go through the boat. 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 it’s 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 just rocking wildly with the masts were coming together and touching each other. And the water just kept continuing to rise.”

In the early morning hours, Raziano was trying to get a little fitful sleep when a hatch cover directly above his berth blew out throwing streams of wind and water down on him. His immediate reaction was to jam a pillow in the hatch, but that was simply sucked out before his eyes. He then ran out onto the stern of his boat trying to track down anything that could be used to secure it and eventually spotted a large piece of plywood floating over the cement piers.

In his preparations the day before, he had 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 water above the cement piers. He manhandled the plywood back onto the boat and as he was under generator power, he broke out his skillsaw and in the rain and winds he fashioned a new cover for the hatch. At one point he looked up and noticed another neighbor, Kevin Hughes, watching him from a window of his powerboat. Raziano actually cracked a smile wondering what Hughes was thinking about him standing in that weather operating a saw.

After securing the hatch inside the cabin, he had to climb out on the upper deck to secure it from the outside and this 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 roof on 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 loose one piece of it. They built this marina solid.”

As the brunt of Katrina blasted the city and the marina, 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′ ketch, Stouffel watched as the water “finally went over the pilings. My lines were all under water. It was over the dockboxes. I kept saying to myself that this is like biblical proportions. Four sailboats washed up on top of each other right in front of me. Then a large powerboat in the slip across from me got jammed under the roof of the pier with her bow sitting atop a piling. That boat actually stayed resting like that for months afterwards.”

The highest force of winds finally came when the wind clocked out of the west. Raziano explains, “With the protections 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 up over the water, but once all that crap got blown down there was 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 boats were on the west side of the piers.”

He recalls how by 11:00 Monday morning, the normal water depth under his boat had already doubled to 24 feet, leaving the water a mere foot and a half from overtopping the seawall and how in the marina’s small parking lot there were easily two foot seas. Because with the height of the water where it was, they were all now looking over the rooftops of the piers and could even now see into the surrounding neighborhood over the seawall. Raziano watched as a huge vortex of wind came off of one of the high-rises and explains, “I was looking out the starboard door and all that wind pressure was rolling off the edge of building. It created a vortex and then took the roof off of a smaller house next door. It took it up 5 feet in the air, levitated it for a couple of moments and then turned it 90 degrees where it smashed into the small house next to it. Debris was flying everywhere.”

As they 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% of the boats of all different stripes obviously sunk or resting atop other boats, but surprisingly it wasn’t anywhere near complete devastation. What they couldn’t know at the time was how badly damaged the other harbors were, where some reached up to near 80% losses. They also had no idea that there was a little 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.

Communications with the outside world was zero, let alone to his mother’s house only four blocks away, as such Stouffel was becoming increasingly concerned about his wife and mother who had ridden out the storm there. It wasn’t until Wednesday that the water levels in the marina had dropped significantly to where they could walk out onto the piers. Having heard on the radio about the levee failure and understanding 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. Finding them safe, but wet with over a foot and a half of water in the home at this point, 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.

During this same day, more and more individuals started showing up in the marina, forced by the rising waters to evacuate their homes and out onto their boats. Included in this group were a New Orleans Police Officer, his wife and two others who set up a base on their sailboat down the pier.

That Wednesday 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 first night we ate like hogs. You either eat it or throw it away.”

Thursday is when it started turning ugly. With Benz Faget, a local sailmaker and others joining, they would commandeer small flatboats and make runs out into the immediate neighborhoods conducting rescues. Raziano describes, “After every storm for the first two days its always stagnant and sweltering. The water stunk from all the sewage backed up in the city. It was black water. It was nasty.” At this point there was still no military presence whatsoever and the group began to make a few runs further out into the mayhem including one specifically for the marina’s security guard who was several miles away and stranded in his home. Raziano finishes, “By the third day though, it wasn’t really rescues anymore, but body recovery.”

With the NOPD Officer coming back to the marina at night and describing some of the horror stories out in the city with police involved in running gun battles, the group quickly agreed to lock down the marina at night and set up watches. All were now armed carrying holstered pistols on their waists. Raziano adds, “We secured the marina. We called it homeland security.”

Even though they were under extreme levels of stress, Raziano never lost his sense of humor throughout and after the Police Officer was describing the fire he and his fellow officers were taking he mentioned, “I’d take off that shirt that says police on the back of it and I’d put on one that says no bra I ain’t the police.”

It was finally during this time that a military presence started to appear. Blackhawk helicopters appeared in the sky, dropping troops off to cut down streetlights and electric poles in order to make landing zones along the higher streets near the levees and the marinas. They would leave quickly though, but several did dump out cases of MRE’s. The group’s real concern was for their rapidly diminishing water supply, especially in the heat of a late August Louisiana sun.

It turns out that the crew in the marina was able to subsist off of their existing water stores, but it wasn’t until the 82nd Airborne and the Massachusetts National Guard appeared that they received fresh supplies of bottled water and their first sense of real security.

Raziano smiles as he describes how one afternoon he went over and talked with some soldiers with the Airborne who were bivouacked in tents across the street at the Army Corps of Engineers building and how they had to be miserable in this heat, “I mean we were actually better off than they were. With a few of us having generators, we had air conditioning. I went over there and asked if there was anything I can do for y’all. The soldiers were all like, man we’re supposed to be here saving you.”

One of the soldiers mentioned something about ice, and as Raziano is a contractor and was just contacted via text message by one of his customers asking him to secure his restaurant over in nearby Jefferson Parish, a restaurant that had an ice machine capable of making 2,400 pounds of ice a day, he was able to take a truck to the restaurant and grab about 800 pounds of ice. He then delivered it to the soldiers who were all laughing, asking where in the heck do you come up with 800 pounds of ice in a disaster.

The days out at the marina quickly turned into weeks and the group tried their best to adapt to an uncomfortable situation. They eventually took over a pool located on the second story of a condo building and were finally able to start bathing. Improvisation took over with the stern swimming platforms of boats resting on the piers becoming makeshift tables and bars. Scrounging for fuel became more and more difficult, but they persevered.

Stoufflet further explains, “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.”

Today, nine months after Katrina crashed ashore, nothing much has changed. While Orleans Marina has been divested of most of the foundered boats, Municipal Harbor still looks almost exactly the same – littered with destroyed and sunken boats. The surrounding neighborhoods, as well as most of the city still lie in ruin. There are no restaurants or grocery stores open in the immediate area around the marina, but electricity did return in late April.

There are a few bright spots, regattas and Wednesday Night Racing have resumed on the Lake – in fact the first was held October 24th with Southern Yacht Club’s running of their 156th Closing Regatta. It was held less than two months after the event, and had a remarkable showing of 46 boats, many with battle scars, competing. Over 300 spectators reveled in the shadow of Southern’s burned out husk of a club – almost defiantly in the wake of so much devastation.

Ordinary citizens have even taken to trying to clear the channels themselves, attempting to remove the sunken boats with truck inner tubes and inflatable racing marks. A local racer who was out on a recent afternoon with several others working on this problem, explains, “If we waited for politicians, the harbor master, or the city or the feds to clean up… well that’s what you have right now, nothing. Just a bunch of devastated boats and houses.”

The one thing that has changed though, with the incredible loss to the city’s housing stock, the population of liveaboards has sharply risen.

Steve Breaux, a longtime liveaboard who returned four months ago smiles and comments, “Maybe they might enjoy the marina life and stay out here in our little community behind the levee walls.”

With the rate of recovery progressing as slowly as it is, Breaux may well be right except that these new neighbors may well be here for years out of necessity.