2006Public Service

Where grown men and little children did the best they could

Jarvis DeBerry
December 18, 2005

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"You had to lie to them," the police officer said. He and his partner were explaining the false promises they made to some residents of the Lafitte housing development who were waiting to be rescued. New Orleans was under water. The police officers were in boats. They'd been pulling people out of the water all day, and now that darkness was falling they wouldn't be able to do any more.

They'd already felt the slap of unseen power lines against their foreheads. And they knew that if they kept pushing it they could capsize, and they and the people they'd rescued would drown. So they were calling it quits for the night.

That's not what they told the people they were leaving behind, though. They told them they'd be right back.

To tell those residents the awful truth, that they'd have to sleep in such misery for another night, may have caused a panic, the officers said. The truly desperate may have tried to force their way onto the boat, which also could have turned the boat over.

I don't remember the names of those two officers. Our paths just happened to cross more than a week ago, and we started talking about where we were and what we were doing the day of and the days after Hurricane Katrina.

The officers said they were drawn to the housing development by children standing on a balcony screaming, "We want to leave!"

But when the officers motored over to them and offered the children a ride, they declined. "There are littler children here," one of the officers recalled a child saying. "You should take them first."

To hear the officers tell it, the selflessness those children displayed was typical. When they reached the apartment where five young women were clutching five babies, the mothers encouraged them to first take care of a young man whose paralysis left him incapable of taking care of himself.

Officers found the man, who was wearing nothing but a soiled diaper, in the care of his father. At their invitation, the father lifted his son into his arms and stepped into the boat.

Officers wrongly assumed that the son being cradled in his father's arms was a boy -- he looked so young and was so frail -- but according to an obituary that later ran in The Times-Picayune, he was 26 years old.

The young man couldn't voice his agony, the officers said, but his suffering showed on his face. One of the officers told me that he'll take the look he saw on that young man's face with him to his grave.

The fact that they had had to lie to those who had reached out to them for help seemed to be weighing on the two men.

Had they done the right thing? Did all those people they moved to safety justify their false promise to come back for more?

When they said, "You had to lie to them," I wondered if I was really the person they were trying to convince. No matter how much good one does -- and lots of people did lots of good during the days following the storm -- the fear of not having done enough can be difficult to overcome.

If those question do worry them, officers should take some solace in knowing that some of the people they found in trouble at the Lafitte were gracious enough to step back and insist that the more vulnerable among them be rescued first. Would the people who were so concerned for others be upset to learn of the officers' lie? Maybe so. But would they be so angry that they wouldn't try to understand the cops' dilemma? Would they reject their efforts to explain?

"There are littler children here." A child who would say such a thing has been taught some important lessons about humanity. Hard to imagine that those who did the teaching would do anything less than hug those officers for the lives they were able to save.

Public Service 2006