Advertising

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Close-up

New Orleans police officer made the flood his beat

Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS — It was almost dawn. Patrick Hartman had not slept well.

Weary and sleep-deprived, Hartman got up to get ready for work. He was a New Orleans police officer. His regular shift wouldn't begin until 4 p.m., but he planned to leave around noon. He had been told he would be part of a cleanup crew that evening, after Hurricane Katrina had passed.

Hartman did not make it to work that day. Hurricane Katrina literally washed him away. Like the city itself, Hartman forever was altered by what happened that day, by the privations he endured in the days that followed and the decisions he and others were forced to make.

In many ways, his trials were the trials of an entire city: His home was flooded. He was submerged in fetid floodwaters. He was rescued. He rescued others. He was left bereft and homeless, wearing the same fouled clothing for days.

As a member of a police force shattered by the storm, Hartman, 36, lived a parallel life. He was both flood victim and working cop. The police chief said 80 percent of his officers lost homes to the flood, and one-third of the 1,740 officers could not, or would not, report for work after Katrina hit.

Improvised policing

Hartman's police station was flooded. He would have no police cruiser, no radio, no uniform. He and fellow officers hot-wired cars and boats, confiscated airport shuttle vans and took food and water from looted stores, he said. He was fired on by snipers, even as he rescued people from rooftops.

After all this — after a gashed hand bled all over a stranger's bedroom, after the skin on his feet cracked and sloughed off, after a desperate gunshot that left his hearing impaired — Patrick Hartman did an odd thing. He went back to work.

But not before he wrote a letter to his 87-year-old grandmother, describing all that had befallen him.

He knew what had been forecast, but at 5 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, Hartman thought the rainfall was calm and ordinary. Yet it would not stop. He watched from the doorway of his efficiency apartment.

Hartman lived alone, divorced, wedded to his job. The New Orleans native spent his entire adult life in the regimented world of the military and law enforcement, including nearly nine years with the NOPD.

He rented in Lakeview, a neighborhood founded by Irish immigrants near the 17th Street Canal levee. At least 100 cops and firefighters lived there.

Into the waters

There is a saying in Lakeview during hurricane season: "Fill your bathtub with water and take your ax to the attic."

Hartman did neither. Although at least half of Lakeview had evacuated by that morning, he stayed put. A friend would be coming by to give him a ride to the 7th District police station in New Orleans East.

As the waters rose, he called to check on his mother, Cheryl, who lives about 20 miles west in St. Charles Parish. His cellphone then failed.

He was strapping on his 9-mm pistol and police radio just as a flood surge crashed through the narrow passage between his apartment and the house next door. Hartman didn't know it, but the levee had ruptured.

In an instant, he was standing in waist-deep water. He realized the flood was about to swallow his apartment. He opened the front door and dived into the swirling water. The power of the surge shocked him. He could not touch the ground. He tried to swim but was buffeted by the water. He was wearing a T-shirt, jeans and a $175 pair of cowboy boots his mother had given him for Christmas.

He washed up to one house, then another. He bashed a window with his fist, trying to force his way inside. He fumbled for his pocketknife. He punched at a window with the knife in his fist. The blade slipped and sliced through his palm. Blood gushed down his arm.

Hanging on

He was swept away again. Near Bragg Street, he recognized a massive oak. Floating now, he reached out and hooked the 8-foot-high branch with his arm and held on.

He was exhausted and tried to rest. He began talking to the tree, and to his late father, trying to calm himself.

He noticed a two-story house with an open window. He swam toward it. He passed two submerged cars.

Reaching the house, Hartman tried to hoist himself through the window, but something made him realize that he was in his bare feet. His cowboy boots had washed away.

He made his way around back and beached himself on a porch. He wanted to break through a pair of French doors but did not want to cut himself again. He drew his waterlogged handgun; he thought it might be able to fire at least once. He squeezed the trigger and a round shattered the glass. But the reverberation ruptured his right eardrum. The gun "stovepiped" — it failed to retract into firing position and was useless to him now.

Shelter and respite

Hartman reached inside the opening and felt a deadbolt — with no key. He had hoped to find a lock with a twist knob.

He fought his way back to the front and managed to hoist himself through the open window. He waded through six inches of water on the ground floor, then slogged upstairs.

There were two telephones, but both were dead. Hartman settled in. He studied family photos on the wall — a family of four, with a son and a daughter. He was bleeding all over their second floor.

He found a pen and paper and wrote an apology.

He felt so guilty that after he used the upstairs bathroom, he fetched a pail of floodwater from downstairs to flush it. He did not eat any of the family's food, he said later.

He soon lay down on the floor in the boy's bedroom. He slept for the rest of the day, his blood soaking the sheets.

He awoke in the dark to the sound of a helicopter overhead. He found a flashlight and waved it frantically through the night, but he remained marooned.

At first light, he saw that the floodwaters had risen to the first-floor ceiling. He decided that staying in the house was untenable. He found a worn pair of sneakers in his size. He wrote another bloody note, apologizing again.

Spotting a man in a boat outside, he broke a window and dropped into the waters below.

Hartman struggled to reach the boat. The boatman had to drag him aboard. The two barely spoke.

After he rested, Hartman seized one of the many boats bobbing in the water. He floated from house to house, rescuing people stranded on rooftops and porches. He dropped each person on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, then went back for more. He rescued 15 people by nightfall, he said.

"We spent the day stealing boats, rescuing people and creating a miniflotilla that rescued many people that day," he wrote his grandmother.

He did not see a single other police officer, he said.

"What I saw was civilians from outside the flooded area helping out, rescuing people, volunteering to take acquired boats to help others, sharing food and water, no violence, only goodwill," he wrote.

Still in his soggy T-shirt, jeans and borrowed sneakers, late Tuesday, Aug. 30, Hartman walked and hitched rides to the 7th District police station, which was under water. Officers had taken refuge in a banquet hall on high ground next to the Chef Menteur Highway. They had two working police cruisers, Hartman said.

For the next few days, Hartman split his time between search-and-rescue operations and forays to secure supplies for the little outpost.

No-shows

He felt abandoned by the 500-some officers who had failed to report for duty. Some may have died in the flood and others probably were evacuating their families, according to police Capt. Marlon Defillo. But many simply deserted, police Supt. Eddie Compass said.

Hartman was noncommittal when asked about the deserters. But when he was told that none had been disciplined, he muttered, "Not yet."

Weary and filthy after several nights of sleeping on chairs outside the banquet hall, Hartman rode with a homicide detective to his mother's home west of the city on Friday, Sept. 2.

Cheryl Hartman, a tiny, energetic woman with short-cropped hair, had not heard from her son since the day of the storm. She feared that he had perished.

When her son showed up, dirty and disheveled, she felt a rush of relief and gratitude. He stayed barely 15 minutes, grabbing a pair of military fatigue pants and a change of clothes.

On the night of Sunday, Sept. 4, Hartman said he was summoned to back up officers confronting at least seven snipers in a motel near the Danziger Bridge. Police later said the gunmen had been firing on contractors traveling under police escort to repair a levee break. Hartman said they also shot at rescuers launching boats from a flooded roadway.

With police-issued weapons and ammunition in short supply, Hartman said, some officers fired guns and ammunition brought from home.

After a long shootout, four snipers lay dead and a fifth was mortally wounded, police said. "Bunch of crackheads," Hartman said later.

Four days later, on Thursday, Sept. 8, a flotilla of Marines arrived at the makeshift police station in amphibious vehicles designed for flood and hurricane rescue. When they asked for police volunteers to guide them through the eastern wards, Hartman climbed aboard.

"I was fed up with the lack of cohesiveness on the force," he said later. "It's going to be a long time before this force recovers."

For two days, he crawled over balcony railings and crept along windowsills, trying to get inside flooded homes to find survivors or corpses.

Chugging at rooftop level and crunching over submerged cars, the crews checked hundreds of homes resting in 6 to 8 feet of foul water with an oily blue sheen. Hartman's fair face was sunburned a bright pink, his red hair plastered against his forehead, a wad of Skoal bulging from his lip.

On Sept. 10, Hartman was ordered to take five days off. He caught a ride to his mother's house, where he downed five cans of carbonated lemonade and several Miller Lites.

He was thin and haggard, with a crusty slab of brown tissue forming on the wound in his palm.

"His feet look like he's got jungle rot from Vietnam," Cheryl said. She made him soak them in Epsom salts; they burned so badly that he pounded his fists on the kitchen table.

His first night back, Patrick took out a laptop at 3 a.m. and wrote the letter to his grandmother, Virginia Lawson, who had asked him about the flood.

"I wrote it so I wouldn't have to talk about it," he said.

Los Angeles Times photographer Rob Gauthier contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

advertising


Get home delivery today!

Advertising