2006Public Service

'Help me, please don't let me die'

911 operators confront grim task, ghastly calls
Brian Thevenot
Staff writer
September 19, 2005

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As she took that first call from a woman trapped in her 9th Ward attic, 911 operator Lechia Allen ached with the grim realization that the next call would be the same. And the next. And the next. She couldn't do a thing for any of them.

Working in the downtown 911 center at Broad and Gravier streets, next to the Falstaff antenna, Allen knew police wouldn't respond to calls while the winds of Hurricane Katrina roared. She knew the rescue operation wouldn't start for hours and, in many cases, days. Laboring under the heavy weight of helplessness, all Allen and her 120 fellow operators could do was listen to the terrifying tales of rising waters, raging fires and parents holding their children toward the skies, above the floodwaters.

"They heard people taking their last breaths. They heard people holding children up in the peak of the attics, and dropping children in the water and watching them drown," said New Orleans Police Capt. Steve Gordon, chief of the 911 center.

Some of the nearly all-female staff working with Allen, 44, took calls from the same neighborhoods where they knew their families had stayed to ride out the storm, she said. Some lost loved ones. Others haven't been found.

"Seek higher ground" - that was all that Allen could tell them, in the calmest voice she could muster.

"I'm already on my roof," so many of them would respond.

After that first call, the one that still sticks in Allen's head, they all blended together.

"It was a lot of hollering and screaming and, 'Help me, please don't let me die,' and 'The water's coming up' and 'We're all going to die' ... 'I have a baby' ... 'Where do you go? What do you do? What time are you coming?'" Allen said after working another 12- hour shift one day last week.

Such moments are captured in wrenching clarity in a sampling of 911 tapes released by the New Orleans Police Department.

In one, an operator identified only as "operator 16" calmly and politely advises just-as-polite resident from "1623 Rampart, between Tupelo and Gordon'' that help would not arrive anytime soon.

"I'm stuck in the attic, me and my sister and them, and my mama, and we got water in the whole house," the caller says.

"How many people are in this location with you?"

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine people."

"OK, ma'am, we're going to try to get somebody out there to 1623, OK.?''

"OK, thank you."

"You're welcome."

Another woman called from eastern New Orleans, reporting a spreading fire across the street.

"I'm calling to report a fire, at 6131 Bundy Road."

"What type?"

"There's a whole apartment complex on fire ... ''

"Do you know how long ... ,'' the operator interrupts.

"No, ma'am.''

" Do you know if anybody's inside the house?"

"I know there's people over there, that's what I'm trying to say ... "

"... OK, we'll get somebody out there."

"Ok. Thanks."

Another woman called from 1428 Gallier St. in the 9th Ward.

"How many inside the location with you, ma'am?" the operator asks.

"I got a handicapped girl and I got a baby that's on a pump machine ... we're in the bed ... But the water is coming up."

"He's an infant?"

"Yeah, the baby's 8 months ..."

"OK, what you need to do - we're trying our best - but you need to get to higher ground, until we're able to get to you."

As Hurricane Katrina sent water rushing into the 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans the day of the storm, Allen listened for a full hour to the callers before taking a break. Many of the operators around her couldn't take it for more than 15 minutes before breaking into sobs and handing the chair over to a revolving cast of replacements. When they recovered their composure, they stepped back in line to relieve those who just had relieved them.

In between such stunted shifts, the women gathered in the hallways, weeping and hugging, watching for which of their colleagues would be the next to break down.

"It's a given that they handle life-and-death emergency calls," said Joe Narcisse, second in command at the call center. "But they don't handle calls where somebody's going to die call after call after call. It was a kind of doomsday, sum-of-all-fears atmosphere."

Yet the women processed the calls like they always do, knowing that for so many of the people they had tried to soothe, it wouldn't matter. At times they couldn't get clear answers even on the most basic information from distressed callers.

In one call that drove home the deadly power of the storm, Narcisse said, an operator asked for an address the caller couldn't possibly give.

"His house had floated down the street," Narcisse said.

Even as they continued to get frantic calls from east of the Industrial Canal, nearest the storm, the passing of the storm gave way to a brief sense of relief, an end in sight.

Then the floodwall at the 17th Street Canal burst, sending water raging into the city all night and generating a whole new round of frantic calls. The new wave of destruction swamped Allen's house in Gentilly.

As the city continued to flood late Aug. 29 and into Aug. 30, the difference between day and night blurred as the operators continued to struggle through short shifts, replacing one another as each reached the limit of horrors.

Meanwhile, the water crept closer to the call center, already damaged by wind. Gordon roamed the center that night, trying to determine whether to move the operation to a safer room.

By daybreak, the water came in around the operators' ankles, then to their knees. Gordon had little choice: The operators loaded onto boats that would take them to the Broad Street overpass, where they would bake in the heat for several hours before spending several uncomfortable days at downtown hotels.

Even as the water had come into their building, the operators' phones never stopped working. They were ringing as the boats pulled away.

Now, more than two weeks after the storm, almost all of the operators have left town, in many cases joining their evacuated families out of state. Only about 15 operators, including Allen, remained in the city and working this week. State Police operators have stepped in to fill the gap, 911 officials said.

Allen has yet to take a day off. She hasn't seen her house, her boyfriend or her two sons, who all evacuated. She doesn't know when she'll be able to see them, and her cell phone rarely works. She's also waiting for calls from FEMA and her insurance company.

But she said she plans to keep her $9-an-hour job, and to stay in New Orleans.

"I'm not leaving New Orleans," she said. "If I have to rebuild, I'll rebuild."

Public Service 2006