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Last Updated: Monday, 5 September 2005, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
Left behind in New Orleans
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, New Orleans

Ron Henry
Volunteer Ron Henry has picked up dozens of people in his boat
Diana Womble could barely speak when Ron Henry and Robyn Mooney found her on Sunday morning, six days after the waters of Lake Pontchartrain poured into New Orleans.

Her house was four feet deep in water, boat the only way to reach it. Mr Henry, a grizzled, one-legged retired mechanic covered in tattoos, piloted his air boat up to her front gate.

"Grab your medicines and let's go - you gotta evacuate," Mr Mooney called.

An emotional Ms Womble appeared at the door. "I have 15 cats," she called to her would-be rescuers. "I can't leave them."

Mr Henry and Mr Mooney exchanged a look.

"You gotta leave 'em - let's go," Mr Mooney shouted back at her, knowing there was no way an overcrowded refugee shelter could take in pets, let alone 15 cats.

On the verge of tears, Ms Womble stood her ground, her determination to protect the animals overcoming her terror at being left alone in a part of the city likely to remain under water for another month.

"Yesterday we were shooting the dogs we left behind," Mr Mooney yelled. "Come on, we gotta go."

She shook her head fiercely.

Diana Womble with cats
Some people, like Diana Womble, stayed to care for her pets
The rescuers - volunteers whose own homes near New Orleans had been savaged by Hurricane Katrina - realised they had met an immovable object.

"You got cages? Pack 'em up and let's go!"

Ms Womble disappeared into the house. Mr Mooney lowered himself off the boat into the debris-filled, chest-deep water and followed her.

Moments later, he returned and began handing box after box of cats into the small, propeller-powered craft.

Designed to skim Florida's Everglades, air boats have proved to be among the most useful craft for getting to those people - probably numbering in the hundreds, if not more - who remain in their homes in flooded sections of New Orleans.

Every morning, dozens of them set off from the levees, banks of earth built to protect a city lying below sea level and surrounded by an ocean, a lake and a river.

They skim down what were once the streets of New Orleans, some relying on satellite navigation systems programmed for drivers in the city, in search of the many who could not get out - or who chose not to, like Ms Womble.

When she staggered out of her house, clutching a handbag and a small pile of clothes, her relief and gratitude were palpable.

"Thank you," she heaved. "Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Thank you so much."

She took an orange offered to her and tore into it with long, skinny fingers.

Fifty-eight years old, she had been alone in the house with her cats for nearly a week.

She had stocked up on cat food before the storm, but had relied herself on food dropped by the military disaster relief team - and had even shared that with her cats.

She took all but three of them out with her.

Trapped

As Mr Henry steered the boat back out into the street, he said she was not the first person he had met who was staying behind because of pets.

More than a dozen people he encountered on his first hour-long sweep on Sunday refused to be taken out - more than agreed to come with him.

But soon after taking Ms Womble aboard, he met a family who had stayed behind for a different reason.

Flooded house in New Orleans
Some parts of the city will remain under water for weeks to come
At 8137 Oleander Street - the Golean Banquet and Reception Hall - Eva Morgan leaned out a second-storey window in response to Mr Mooney's call.

"Where you taking people?" she wanted to know.

They explained there was a mandatory evacuation on.

"There's going to be nothing here for a month - no stores, no water, no food, nothing," Mr Mooney shouted up to her.

"I know," she said. "I got five people up here who need to get out. But they need a lot of help."

Mrs Morgan, it turned out, had stayed behind with her family and a friend, Andrew Smith, to rescue other people in the neighbourhood.

In a boat smaller than Mr Henry's, Mr Smith had been cruising the neighbourhood searching for elderly and disabled people trapped in their homes.

He and the Morgans had brought about 40 people into the second-storey banquet hall over the course of the week, carrying many up the stairs because they could not walk.

As rescue craft passed, they hauled the people they had saved back down the stairs and sent them outside the city to safety.

'Water everywhere'

Those helped to leave by the Morgans and Mr Smith included: Joseph Miller, 59, partly paralysed due to a spinal cord injury; Mark Myles, 52, deaf, slender and withdrawn; Joseph Butler, 78, clutching a walking stick - and his wife, Mary Butler, a spry 76-year-old who described how she and her husband had weathered Katrina on Monday and gone to bed thinking the worst was past.

"Then we woke up on Tuesday morning and there was water everywhere," she said, still startled by the memory days later.

She had filled a bathtub with water before the storm hit, and had stockpiled tins of soup, which she and her husband ate cold.

Finally, on Saturday, Mr Smith and the Morgans found them - and a day later, handed them over to the burly Mr Mooney, who heaved them into the boat as gently as he could.

Mr Pierce, 40, who had helped bring people down the steps, joined the evacuees, but Mr Smith and the Morgans stayed behind.

"Yeah, we'll get out in a little while," Mr Smith said, leaning against a handrail with a grin. "But we know there's more people around here still."




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