Here, on the deep waters of the neighborhood called Elysian Fields, it was quiet. The only sign of desperation was a big white dog, pacing back and forth on the porch of a house up on stilts, water licking the top step. There was a perverse serenity to the place. Instead of helicopters, brilliant dragonflies buzzed around. A gorgeous pink crape myrtle bloomed, high above its submerged trunk. Oil on the muck matched the sheen on a magnolia's leaves. One house still flew the American flag, a sure sign of inhabitants there; after wind like that, someone had deliberately unfurled it.
The rescuers had put their boats in at a highway off-ramp where a street named Humanity had once been, and set off through nearby Elysian Fields to make paradise wait for any souls still stranded. There had been some dramatic rescue stories throughout the week -- the 95-year-old man who saved himself by flashing a pocket mirror in the sun from the hole in his roof; the nuns who stayed with the nursing home patients. Inspiring stories, the kind the media need on Day 6 of any disaster.
But to the searchers' surprise, many had refused to leave. (Denial? Dementia?) So they came back Saturday, offering one last chance to people surely starving, dehydrated and weakened, five days after the hurricane.
The small punts chugged off -- a medic, a seriously armed guard and a rescue professional on each -- and the support teams waited for them to return. There was the doctor set up on the highway above, and the tacticians with their global positioning systems, radio equipment, grid maps and satellite photos. They had come from all around the country, and many of them had their skills honed and their jaws set by picking the rubble at Ground Zero and Oklahoma City. But this, they all agreed, this was the worst.
Time passed under a blistering sun. The computer inside a Coast Guard command vehicle gave a readout: 95 degrees, with a heat index of 105. Then, a humming grew to a chugging and two boats drew up to the highway ramp.
Survivors! Snatched from the grasp of death!
Many of the people who emerged out of working-class Elysian Fields and the adjacent middle-class Gentilly seemed quite durable, which, as the day wore on, seemed all the more inspiring.
When they talked about why they stayed in their homes, they had their own reasons, but the theme was clear: They had kept their ears to the 24-hour all-hurricane news station, WWL-AM, and in a city completely in chaos, they knew they had a better chance of survival if they kept control over their own lives. Saturday, the news accounts indicated the horrible backlog for the displaced was ending.
When the rescue team came this time, Shirley Rihner, 83, agreed to come in. "I'm just fine, thank you," she said. She had her gold sneakers on, and she looked as though she had just been to the beauty parlor before going to Atlantic City. Her husband, Charles, 95, wearing his WWII Vet ball cap, and her granddaughter, Laurel Laborde, 25, were with her.
But her son and her other granddaughter had refused to leave. The waters were down to about a foot in Gentilly, the city's highest point, at the very rim of the bowl that is New Orleans. And they could communicate now, she added, because "Laurel went out there on the roof and got through one of those -- what do you call it, Laurel? -- yes, texting things."
Here came two gentlemen, Ray Lang, 47, and Alex Sanabria, 59. Sanabria leaned on a rosewood cane with a gold carved handle. Lang led their dog, Caesar, a cairn terrier wearing an expensive blue leather collar studded with gold dog medallions. Caesar's leash had one of those little baggie dispensers dangling from it, and there was good supply of baggies in there.
The couple had been eating well -- good coffee every morning, and salads at night. Each morning they got up, looked at the water level on the fire hydrant out front and then planned what to make for dinner, based on what was thawing most quickly in the powerless freezer. "I have chicken marinating in the fridge right now," said Lang, head of the computer science department at Xavier University, "but they weren't going to let us stay to eat dinner."
Twice before, offers of rescue had come, but Caesar wasn't allowed along. This time, the task force members did, but Lang left the cats. His 87-year-old neighbor wouldn't go, so the rescuers took his two five-gallon jugs of spring water over to her.
"She thinks the water will go down and she will walk to the store for coffee again," said Lang.
Another boat came, another landing party. A woman with fresh nail polish delicately stepped out of the boat and handed her knockoff Louis Vuitton duffel to a Coast Guardsman, who meekly carried it behind her, like a porter.
Two little girls with her trailed behind, and their hair was freshly braided, their summer dresses clean. Another young woman in their landing party came ashore clutching a bottle of turquoise liquor.
"I would say about half of them are still staying put," said Mike Lee, a safety officer for the task force from Colorado, after coming in from a rescue. "We look for the visible people. We offer them water and a last chance to leave. When they have made up their mind to stay, they stay."
On Saturday, rescue crews across New Orleans brought more than 600 people to dry land. But in many neighborhoods, as in Elysian Fields and Gentilly, up to half of those contacted opted to stay home. The problem has been so widespread that yesterday, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff went public with a stern warning that time was running out.
"They ask 'Where am I going?' " said Gerald Eubanks, a Coast Guardsman from Iowa, who had worries of his own about family in Biloxi. "They have heard the rumors."
Elsewhere in the devastated city, acrid smoke poured into the air, dozens of choppers made their racket, and the homeless wept, moaned and collapsed as they waited to leave.
Shelby Lance was piloting his pontoon boat around, hoping to become one of those "man-in-the-flooded-street" heroes, and offered a reporter and photographer a ride. (Rules set by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates the massive convoys combing the waters each day, allow only necessary personnel on boats, to conserve space for those rescued.)
Lance's boat headed past the intersection of what had been Franklin Avenue and Pleasure Street. A man in a yellow T-shirt lay on his back, his arms outstretched, as if enjoying a summer float under the brilliant blue sky. Someone had tied a wrist to the highway marker, so the corpse did not drift away.
Down at one end of the neighborhood, the liquor store looked like folks had been helping themselves, and a canoe was tied up outside. Another man looked headed that way. "You all right?" called out Lance, and the man grinned and said he was fine. "I'm getting around," he said. "You could say I'm a commuter."
As the day wore on, about two dozen adults and three children arrived at the ramp and clustered together under a blue tarp, to await transport by Army truck to Destination Unknown. The rescuers, sweating in their blue jumpsuits, loaded down with their equipment, handed out water and Meals Ready to Eat.
Ariel Opara, 22, and her sister, Courtney, 21, wore matching "I'm So Lucky" T-shirts, as if they had been planning for this day, this boat. "No, we weren't waiting for them," she said. "It was what I had. The other [shirts] were all standing up by themselves."
An executive assistant at House of Blues and a mass communications student at the University of New Orleans, Opara got off work Friday night and headed off for the weekend with her mother, Jacqueline, 50, and sister, who was stricken with a chronic vascular disease two years ago and now uses a wheelchair. "I do that every weekend," she said, "to give my mother a break, since she's the primary caregiver."
When she heard the hurricane was coming, she stayed. When their first-floor apartment flooded, Ariel kicked down three doors of evacuated apartments on the second floor until she found one suitable for the three of them and her mother's boyfriend, Ronald Corley. Then, with the elevators out, she carried Jacqueline up the stairs.
"And we were fine," she said. They played charades by candlelight and put the boombox on the balcony where the other residents could hear it.
"I made bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning on the grill," said Jacqueline. "Well, it's sort of a grill," assembled as it was from the vent of a room air conditioner, a base scavenged from down the hall, and the oven rack.
When Courtney ran out of one of her 12 medications, Ariel waded down to the Walgreen's, "which by then," as she put it, "had been reopened. I had the money to pay for it, but I couldn't." They took turns in Courtney's commode chair, an unexpected comfort, which made them the envy of others. They bleached the "twig water" from outside in their bathtub and rinsed with it.
"We were fine," said Jacqueline. "We had plenty of water, we were going to sleep when we were tired, in our own beds, and we were eating our own good food, and we were enjoying each other."
The night before they came out, they had a family meeting and thought about where to go. Courtney wanted Austin, Ariel said New York, and Jacqueline thought she might like Seattle. Corley would have to find them down the road, because he was out looking for food when the boat came along.
Medics waiting for more arrivals at the highway ramp seemed to be dealing with the hazards of a Walgreen's reopening.
"Spike a line!" one yelled, to get an intravenous line running in a young woman they brought off a boat. She seemed in and out of consciousness and slurry of speech.
A medic rifled through her backpack and asked her name. "Anastasia," he demanded. "Why do you have all this codeine?" The work became frantic. The medevac helicopter was called.
Up above, under the tarp, as the heat bore down, the talk turned spiritual. Jerrell Carter, "the Reverend Jerrell Carter," lubricated and jolly, thought the time was right to marry a couple. He asked for a Bible, and several were pressed forward. He asked Robert Collins, from a Coast Guard unit from Peoria, to witness and sign the impromptu license, on yellow lined paper.
No one had any objections, and Carter, 56, an Army veteran who left his home with little more than the camouflage fatigues and hat on his person, said, "You may now kiss the bride."
There was much applause. Asked her name, the bride said, "Mrs. Uthrelle Scott. Mr. and Mrs. Uthrelle Scott. I'm Lucky."
The newlyweds had known each other but a month, said the new Mrs. Scott, "and we done got real close through this storm."
Collins looked on, shook his head slightly, smiled slightly. There are many people who have beseeched him for help during his stints of Coast Guard rescue. The wedding, that was a first.