Lucrece Phillips' sleepless nights are filled with the images of dead babies and women, and young and old men with tattered T-shirts or graying temples, all of whom she saw floating along the streets of the Lower 9th Ward.
The deaths of many of her neighbors who chose to brave the hurricane from behind the walls of their Painter Street homes shook tears from Phillips' bloodshot eyes Tuesday, as a harrowing tale of death and survival tumbled from her lips.
"The rescuers in the boats that picked us up had to push the bodies back with sticks," Phillips said sobbing. "And there was this little baby. She looked so perfect and so beautiful. I just wanted to scoop her up and breathe life back into her little lungs. She wasn't bloated or anything, just perfect."
Superdome: A man carries his belongings toward the Superdome on Wednesday. The water later reached a turning point and began moving back into Lake Pontchartrain. (Staff photo by Brett Duke)
A few hours after Phillips, 42, and five members of her family and a friend had been rescued from the attic of her second-story home in the 2700 block of Painter Street, she broke down with a range of emotions. Joy, for surviving the killer floods; pain, for the loss of so many lives; and uncertainty, about the well-being of her family missing in the city's most ravaged quarters.
In a darkened lobby of the downtown Hyatt hotel turned refuge, she hugged an emergency worker closely; a handful of his sweaty blue T-shirt rippling from each of her fists.
She had barely gotten out a fifth thank you when the emergency worker whispered into her ear that "it was going to be OK," and that "it was our job to save lives."
Phillips' downstairs neighbor, Terrilyn Foy, 41, and her 5- yearold son, Trevor, were unable to escape, Phillips said. By late Monday the surging waters of Lake Pontchartrain had swallowed the neighborhood. The water crept, then rushed, under the front door, Phillips said, then knocked it from its hinges. In less than 30 minutes, Phillips said, the water had topped her neighbors' 12-foot ceiling and was gulping at hers.
"I can still hear them banging on the ceiling for help," Phillips said, shaking. "I heard them banging and banging, but the water kept rising." Then the pleas for help were silenced by the sway of the current, she said.
Phillips and her family -- her daughter and niece, 20 and 18; an uncle, 40, and his wife, 35, along with their 2-year-old daughter and a friend, 45 -- rushed to the attic for safety. The water was rising and death seemed near, she said. Her back was hurting from the two bones she'd recently had fused during surgery for a car wreck she had in 2003. The group had been up there for hours, and they were growing more frantic as each moment passed. The water kept rising. They saw it inching up.
Phillips said they didn't want to die like little Trevor or his mother or the others who couldn't or wouldn't leave the neighborhood in the face of Katrina. So they pounded, kicked and pulled at the wooden boards in the roof till something gave way. The boards around a vent near a trestle gave way. When the din of boat propellers seemed near, they screamed and waved shirts from the roof. Finally the din got closer and they could see from the broken- out vent men in a boat. A few got in, and then another boat arrived and picked up the others.
Officials early Tuesday said 1,200 stranded residents had been rescued in the city. Later in the day that estimate rose to more than 3,000.
Parents, siblings missing
The seven of them were safe, but Phillips had still not heard from her mother or father out in east New Orleans. Both were 62 years old and both refused to evacuate. Her mother and father's 13 siblings from across the city also chose the four walls of home over evacuating out of town or trekking to the Superdome. For Phillips, evacuation seemed too costly. She and her family evacuated for Hurricane Dennis earlier in the summer. The few days in Houston cost her $1,200.
Phillips had not heard from any of them by late Tuesday, as nearly 90 percent of the city was underwater.
Several other family members, most from outside Louisiana and in town since Aug. 21 for a family reunion, had also not been accounted for. After spending money for weeks, eating out, buying gifts and enjoying the Crescent City, "they figured they would stay until after Labor Day."
"I know this storm killed so many people," Phillips said. "There is no 9th Ward no more. No 8th or 7th ward or east New Orleans. All those people, all them black people, drowned."
She hadn't slept for days. The faces of the dead haunted her waking moments, badgering her not to forget them.
Like so many other survivors, Phillips and family were picked from the flood and dropped off downtown, which was slogged with thigh-high waters, but had the Superdome and some hotels giving solace to refugees.
By early Tuesday evening, officials estimated that about 20,000 people were packed inside the Superdome. Most were hopeless, hungry and increasingly desperate, witnesses and officials agreed. Rumors of murder, rape and deplorable conditions were circulating.
"After all we had been through, those damn guards at the Dome treated us like criminals," Phillips said. "We went to that zoo and they gave us no respect."
The family slogged down Poydras Street to the Hyatt. The hotel didn't have electricity or water, and nearly every glass window on the Poydras side had been blown out by the hurricane, but it was secure. Ranking officials from City Hall across the street had been evacuated there, including Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass.
But there was no real solace for the weary woman or her family. Phillips said she had to contend with not knowing whether her mother or father or extended family had survived. And she's still haunted by the deaths she saw with her own eyes.