Previously: As Hurricane Katrina barreled toward New Orleans, Brandin Bednar and Jason Ziegler prepared to flee to Kentucky with a mutual friend. Then the friend left without them. To catch up on previous episodes, go to www.washingtonpost.com/adventures.
At 5:45 a.m., Brandin Bednar and Jason Ziegler wake up for work, lifting themselves off the wooden floor of their newly rented apartment on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington. They're supposed to be getting some donated furniture. For now, the floor is as cozy as it gets, but they don't complain. Memories of a lot worse are still fresh and raw.
After being stranded in New Orleans, Brandin, then 19, and Jason, 26, rode out Katrina with thousands of other desperate souls in the Louisiana Superdome. They endured 72 hours of thirst, thievery and unspeakable stench.
On day three, Jason and Brandin snuck past one of the National Guard members stationed at the Superdome's exits. They waded through the city's flooded streets and headed for a nearby hotel. They didn't have any money, but Brandin planned to put the room on his mom's credit card.
The hotel demanded cash.
It was getting dark, and they were soaked with stink. They spotted an apartment building under construction and climbed to a second-floor unit with an iron balcony overlooking a street of looted stores. They went to sleep on a floor covered with sawdust.
"It itched like hell," Brandin remembers. When they woke up, their grimy bodies were smeared with dust.
Out on the water-logged street, they hesitated to enter stores whose windows had been smashed. Then a passerby said that the police were allowing people to take what they needed to survive. Brandin soon spotted a case of water in a ruined dry cleaning shop. At a sandwich shop, Jason found meat that was still cool. They took other things: deodorant, booze, toothbrushes, cigarettes, a flashlight, rolls of quarters, disposable cameras. Jason found a dried, lacquered alligator toe strung on a leather band and wore it around his neck as a talisman.
By day, they scavenged for supplies, which they hoarded in the second-floor apartment. By night, Jason, whose one bag of possessions had been stolen at the Superdome, slept with a butcher knife at hand. "We had a lot of water, and I ain't getting my water stolen," he remembers thinking.
One morning they ran into Sean Penn, who was searching for a place to launch a boat to rescue hurricane victims. With a disposable camera, Jason snapped a picture of the actor, who was wearing a white bulletproof vest.
Nearly a week after the storm, a police officer spotted the two friends riding giant tricycles normally used to make deliveries around New Orleans. He offered Jason and Brandin a choice: Be arrested for looting, or get on a bus full of evacuees. The bus took them to a military helicopter, which took them to the New Orleans airport, where they waited to board a plane, destination unknown. Someone said they were being sent to North Korea. Brandin turned to Jason: "God, I hope we don't go there."
Instead they wound up in Washington, where they've been set up with jobs and an apartment by people eager to aid Katrina victims. "We dealt with it all as best as we can," says Jason, who is still plagued by nightmares about people drowning. "And I think we didn't come out of it any worse for the wear."
-- Tyler Currie