The bus caravan from New Orleans limped into the District at 3:35 a.m. yesterday. Out came the exhausted, the homesick and the shellshocked -- some clutching pillows.
And these were the rescue workers.
They left Friday on a mission to bring hundreds of New Orleans evacuees to the District. But after a trip of more than 2,200 miles over 4 days and 7 hours, they returned with memories of heartbreak, devastation, generosity and compassion but only one evacuee. The journey will cost the city at least $82,000.
"Man, 54 years old, and I've never had a whipping like this in my life," said Michael Brown, a fuel truck driver who was part of the caravan of 10 buses, two police vehicles, an emergency medical truck and two carloads of journalists.
The caravan distributed tons of food, water, diapers and other supplies and topped off the fuel tanks of police cars and other emergency vehicles across the stricken region.
Some of the dozens of rescue workers, including police officers, counselors, doctors and drivers, who were part of the mission said that they are proud of their effort and that the supplies and hundreds of gallons of fuel helped those in need. They talked about the man whom they saved from a seizure, the birthday party they attended for a youngster who now calls a hotel home and the medical care dispensed in a stadium turned into a shelter for 800.
Richard Lee, another driver, said he is disappointed that the rescue team didn't help the hundreds of people it expected to assist, but, he said, "If you save one soul, your work has been done."
That one soul has a name: Mary Perrault-Simmons, according to WTOP, which sent a reporter with the convoy.
The trip was thrown together in 11/2 days, inspired by D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) and other city officials who said they were struck by the plight of those who were suffering outside the New Orleans Superdome and convention center.
The city asked Metro officials to find buses. They found 10 interstate buses with bathrooms, 20 drivers and fuel from A&E Limousine Service of Washington and the Art and Will Bus Service of Glen Burnie, for a total of $82,000. The city will reimburse Metro.
When the convoy left the D.C. Armory on Friday, the plan was to arrive in New Orleans the next day and return as early as Sunday with 400 evacuees.
Some of the volunteers and city workers left from their offices, so they didn't have a chance to go home for a change of clothes. The convoy stopped at a truck stop on the way to buy soap and toothpaste.
But a late start, washed-out bridges and a wrong turn left the convoy not in New Orleans but Vicksburg, Miss., on Saturday night. Vicksburg's mayor greeted the group and arranged for the convoy to spend the night in a school gymnasium.
On Sunday, the group rolled through Baton Rouge and was stopped for several hours at a checkpoint in Laplace, La., 28 miles outside of New Orleans. Hundreds of empty buses from such places as Illinois, North Carolina and Michigan were idling.
After a delay of several hours, the convoy was given permission to enter the stricken city.
The city "was a mess," said Stephen Clement, a physician and associate professor at Georgetown University's medical school who volunteered for the mission. Clement is a New Orleans native whose family was forced to evacuate.
"What wasn't underwater was war-torn. What wasn't war-torn was wind-torn," said David Ross, a convoy volunteer.
Outside the Superdome, stopping just short of the floodwater, they were strangely alone. Gone were the thousands of hungry and desperate people longing for a way out of the detestable conditions.
"We were two days too late," Clement said. "It was kind of an eerie feeling."
The convoy stayed there for hours, waiting for evacuees. Officials with the group called over to the airport, but folks there were leaving town by air.
Ross blamed the convoy's difficulties in part on federal emergency officials who had directed the group to places that had been evacuated.
"That's not just poor communication. That's no communication," he said.
The convoy left New Orleans and headed east, ending up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. There, it donated its supplies to local rescue workers, and members volunteered at a shelter.
At a hotel filled with people made homeless by the hurricane, Clement saved a man suffering a seizure, and D.C. police officers chipped in for a gift for a 7-year-old who faced a birthday without a party or presents.
Tuesday morning, the convoy stopped by the shelter to pick up its sole evacuee. Then it was a straight 20 hours back to Washington, where the volunteers found the armory had been filled with more than 200 evacuees flown in for free.