Kelly Ann Taylor, sickened by Crohn's disease and feeling guilty about the four children she had given up for adoption, made it out of Katrina to Shiloh Church here, voodoo dolls and all.
"I wanted to see my children again," she says.
She considers it a miracle she made it.
When Dwayne Martin stepped outside his New Orleans apartment during the early hours of Katrina, he was shocked by what he saw: "It was like the wind was pushing back Pharaoh's army."
Two days after the storm hit, he, too, landed at Shiloh.
"Ain't nothing but a miracle. You hear what I'm saying," he says.
And Thomas Lallande, a 60-year-old Navy retiree, thought his life might end out there on Interstate 10, his arm broken, his feet bleeding and swollen.
After he knocked on the door of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, he collapsed.
"Ain't no other word for it than a miracle," he says of his survival.
Three souls, landing at a church on a street none had ever laid eyes on before. In some ways, there is nothing special about the haven these three have found. It is neither overly large, overly rich, overly righteous. It is merely one of hundreds of houses of faith that have opened their doors to the diaspora wrought by Katrina and watched as thousands of stories have flooded in.
The three led disparate lives. But they were united by their inability or unwillingness to flee Katrina's fury beforehand and their determined struggle to escape New Orleans after the storm hit.
When Katrina hit, Kelly Ann Taylor grabbed her backpack and began packing: toiletries, two voodoo dolls, a pillow and a recent picture of all her children -- Jonathan, 14, Kevin, 13, Rebecca, 8, and Joseph, 5. She had given them up five years ago when she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, an intestinal ailment that needs constant medical attention and evaluation. Now, she hoped they might help her in a tangible way.
"I wrapped the picture tight. I thought if I were to drown, maybe somebody could identify me from the picture of my children."
She fled to the Whistle Stop Bar, not far from the trailer park where she lived. For several days she hunkered down in the bar with others. There was nothing she could do when someone came and told her that her trailer was in flames. She doesn't know whether it was the work of the hurricane or an arsonist.
Supplies began to run out in the bar. "We called the Red Cross, but no one came to help us," she said.
Taylor heard that city evacuees were being brought to the New Orleans airport. She figured she could walk to the airport. "I started cramping up" -- one of the effects of Crohn's -- "and couldn't make it."
She circled back to the bar. Once inside, she was shaking. Chris, a friend, said he thought he could get to Baton Rouge. Taylor didn't know whether to stay or go. "I was petrified."
She decided on Baton Rouge. It was Thursday. The ride lasted hours, but she remembers the sun coming out. Chris dropped her on Florida Avenue and drove off. She was on the city's south side. She had enough money for a bus ticket to Texarkana, Ark., near her children and their new parents. "While I was sitting on the curb, resting, a lady came out of her house. She told me the buses were not running," Taylor recalled.
Then the woman told Taylor to follow her: "I can't even remember her name. But she brung me to Shiloh."
The woman knocked, and when the doors of the church opened, there stood a 32-year-old woman who wanted to live.
"They took me in," says Taylor. "It was, what's the word -- salvation."
When they showed her to a mattress, the first thing she did was unwrap the picture of her four children.
Staring at a Rifle
He's never owned a car dependable enough, in his mind, to make it beyond the boundaries of New Orleans. So when Katrina started to roar, Dwayne Martin, 38, and his wife, Tynia, 40, sunk into a closet in their New Orleans apartment.
After some hours, he ventured a look outside. He saw playground materials flying through the air and decided: "Babe, let's go."
They loaded up the 1994 Mazda. He had every bit of cash he could put his hands on: "Eighty dollars, and that was between me and my wife."
A few miles from his home, he found himself staring at a rifle held by a National Guardsman and aimed at him. "The guard dude said, 'Go back where you came from!' Man, I didn't even want to smile at him. Might get shot. So I just put the car in reverse."
The looting had started, thus the vociferous guardsman.
It was Tuesday, the day after the storm struck.
Back home, Martin and his wife sat in the dark for two days. They ate turkey necks that he cooked on a propane stove, lit with a lighter. The winds were ferocious, he says.
"I saw bricks moving on the building," Martin said. "And at one end of the hallway, a stairwell had just collapsed."
That Thursday, Martin told his wife they had to leave. "I had a little radio on," he said, "and they were saying, 'If you can get out of town now, get out.' "
Martin has five children, ages 13 to 19, from his first marriage. Before leaving town, he went to a nearby neighborhood to see about them. "They were gone, along with my ex-wife."
Tynia Martin helped with navigation while her husband drove. His plan was to get out of Louisiana, or at least go as far as the meager amount of money he and his wife had would allow. "Now we were down to $25 because we had to buy some gas," he recalled.
They finally reached Baton Rouge at twilight Thursday. They rode around and around, water sloshing in the trunk of the car, the windshield shattered from the winds. Rolling down a side street on the south side, Dwayne Martin came to a railroad track where lights were flashing and a train was approaching.
He started to back up so he could turn around. "Then my wife said, 'Hey, baby, look over there.' " He turned and saw in the distance a big neon sign that said "Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church."
They rolled up into the church's parking lot. A security guard looked at them, the car, the looks on their faces, and simply pointed to the church's front door. "Had to be God that led us here," Dwayne Martin said. He and his wife are among several dozen people living at the church.
He has not been able to reach his children. His eyes begin to water, and his lips spread into a little gentle smile, as if he hasn't made up his mind yet about which will win out over the next few seconds: laughter or tears. "Don't know if they're alive" -- he won't use that dreadful "or not."
The retired Navy man kept a life vest in his home on Lavender Street in New Orleans. Thomas Lallande, 60 -- who worked as a deckhand on a casino boat -- thought Katrina might turn out to sea before submerging his city.
That Monday, as the storm hit, he sat in his home trying to gather his thoughts. He lived alone; he just knew there would be no veteran's check that day. "I noticed water coming up on my porch," he said.
He grabbed a mop and bucket. "Next thing I knew, a few minutes later water started bubbling up from the floor! Then, just like that, my couch in the living room was floating."
There was no attic to retreat to. By the time he made it outside to the street, the water was up to his eyes. "I started paddling," he said. "Trying to get to I-10."
He was wearing those old white sneakers he felt so comfortable in walking around on the casino boat. Softly, he admitted, "I only had $6."
It was Monday.
He had swam right past his parked Chrysler -- covered with water -- as if the thing wasn't even his anymore.
During his first hours of travel -- he swam and walked -- he fell and broke his arm. At the time, he didn't notice the break; adrenaline kept his mind from the pain.
When he reached the Louisiana Superdome, where thousands of others had fled, he was repulsed by what he saw: "There was no order. Total chaos. People screaming for water and food."
Lallande immediately left the Superdome. "Went back in the water again," he said.
While in the water, he saw women pushing their babies, who had been placed inside ice coolers, the coolers floating atop the water; the dead dogs with eyes open floating by the coolers and the howling babies.
He had nothing to eat, but now and then, when back on dry land, he would spot bottles of unopened water that had been dropped by the roadside from the helicopters that kept showing up, only to fly away.
He cursed the choppers.
He slept on cement.
Blood had filled his sneakers, from cuts to his feet.
By Wednesday -- two days after leaving his home -- Lallande was hitchhiking on the interstate. A pickup truck passed him by, then it slowed. "There were two guys inside. Black guy and a white guy. They told me to hop in back."
Woozy, he fell in and out of sleep in the pickup.
Then he felt someone tapping him on the shoulder. The truck had pulled up on Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive, in front of Shiloh. The black man had pointed to the church, which sits in a predominantly black community.
The men drove off after helping Lallande from the truck.
When he reached the front door, he knocked. When the door opened, his knees buckled.
"You know something," he said, "I'd never been to Baton Rouge before -- except to ride through."