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Living in Camp Cemetery

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Walter Francis searched for his mother Nellie Francis for days. He finally found her at a makeshift camp in a cemetery.

By Christy Oglesby
CNN

Monday, October 17, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, dozens of people stayed alive by setting up camp among the graves of a cemetery, where they lived for days with no sign that help would come.

Nellie Francis, 77, was one of the residents of the makeshift camp at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, where mausoleums served as shelters and people set up their own emergency government, running rescue efforts, tending to the sick and feeding the hungry - in short, filling the void left by the lack of a noticeable official response to the disaster.

Francis came to the cemetery from her one-story Pauger Street home, where she spent the hours after Katrina struck in knee-deep water, trying to save what she could.

"I took my birds and raised them up high," she said. Tank, her big black Akita, had a dry spot on the flowered living room sofa.

Then hope docked at her door. Men from her neighborhood had launched their fishing boats and one was there for Francis. The boat dropped her off three blocks away at the highest, and only dry section, of the community -- Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

"Nobody else was coming. It wasn't no Coast Guard or nothing," said Russell Plessy, who put Francis and Tank in his boat. "We all know each other around here so we just started helping people."

The helping went on for almost a week. In Katrina's aftermath and the absence of city, state or federal attention, neighbor saved neighbor. Among the white tombs and slick marble crypts, the cemetery's living residents had full bellies, soft bedding, shelter and security.

They came together, as people have across the country in the aftermath of Katrina. With governments and agencies seemingly overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of hurricane destruction, assistance has ranged from frustratingly slow to fatally non-existent.

"There was a guy in the group, I think he was retired Navy, a Vietnam veteran. He oversaw everything," Francis said. Another man named Lawrence, she said, "made the decision about where to go - it was the coolest and cleanest place in the mausoleum."

"They rescued us. They and took care of us from Monday to Friday. They had a Family Dollar right across the street, and these guys went in there and got food and made sure everybody had food....One man who lived across the street still had gas, and he went home and fried chicken for us . . . I couldn't have asked for no better treatment."

Francis' only anxiety, she said, was over her second oldest son, Walter. He lived about seven blocks from her on Jasmine Street, and once she decided not to evacuate, he stayed behind too -- in case his momma would need him.

She needed him for the two and half days she sat on a marble bench in the cemetery. And she needed him when a current started shoving her treasures out of her front door. But he hadn't come then. He wasn't there now. And that hurt.

"I was telling the guys in the cemetery, it's kind of hard to take this because this is the first time I've had a traumatic event and my sons didn't come see about me," Nellie Francis said.

A son's journey

Nellie Francis stayed with a group of neighbors in Mt. Olivet Cemetery inside a mausoleum, one of the few dry places in the area.

Walter Francis, 57, left his house as soon as slate roof tiles, tree limbs and window pieces had stopped whizzing through the air like bullets. His mother's house was a 10-minute walk, max, but not on August 29.

The 6-foot man started in ankle-deep water, turned the corner to shin-high flooding and pressed on as it crept up his body. "I've got to get to my Momma," he thought.

"When I got to Gentilly (Boulevard) was when I got the shock of my life," Francis said. "I couldn't go any further. Gentilly was a river. Branches, garbage cans, even a car was floating, and the water was 4-to-5-feet deep."

He turned back. He churned with worry for the next two and a half days as he tried different paths to his mother's house using a 5-foot stick to tap his way, feeling for debris and open manholes in the waist-deep and putrid black water.

He reached his mother's house Tuesday, and the athletic man shouldered the door open, terrified about what heaviness was keeping it closed. In his mother's house, the thick, murky water reached his armpits.

He used his staff to prod the floor, feeling for her body. The dresses scared him. "I was panicking. I could hear the fear in my voice. I was just shouting, ' 'Momma! Momma!' Her clothes were floating around, and I didn't know whether the clothes had her in it."

He spent a few hours in the house, tapping the floor and sighing every time he felt a dress and found it to be empty. On his way out, he saw neighbors in a boat who told him that his mother was safe in the cemetery, where people were taking care of her.

Walter Francis felt the water getting deeper, another levee had broken. He'd be useless to his mother if he drowned, he thought. So he went home knowing the people who'd known his mother for decades would care for her like family.

Mother and son reunion

Wednesday, he waded again. This time he found his momma, sitting on a bench.

"There was a crowd of people around the bench, but when they stepped back, I could see that was her sitting on the bench. I dropped my stick, and ran to her. She has trouble standing up. But I just grabbed her and pulled her to me and I cried like a baby."

Walter said he was impressed with the Mt. Olivet operation. "These people were very innovative. I was living like a caveman, and she had the best amenities right there."

He persuaded his mother to stay at the cemetery, she'd never make it through the water to his home. And her life among the dead was better than conditions at his house. He'd go home, get supplies, come back.

Thursday, it rained again, stirring the filth in the flood and raising the water level. Walter decided to go back to Mt. Olivet on Friday. By the time he got to the graveyard, a helicopter had finally come for his mother and a few other medically-fragile people.

Rescuers came for Walter 24 hours later. But he said he had an uneasy feeling.

The lead rescuer was saying "the water is not going down for 80 days. You don't have any food. You don't have any water. We can't promise you that rescue workers will come back. There're gangs running around looting and killing and raping. He was terrifying them rather than talking to them," Walter Francis said.

"I was on the border about whether to go with him. ... I extended my hand and said, 'Thank you. I'm so glad to see y'all. ... He wouldn't shake my hand, and that clinched it. I wasn't going to get in a boat with someone who wouldn't touch me."

Walter decided to rely on himself. And in a couple of days, nearly a week after Katrina roared through, he and a small caravan of neighbors drove their SUVs out of the city.

Now, he's in Napoleonville, Louisiana, where he remains in a rental with his wife, Tank, and his momma.

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