All Peggy Scott wanted to know was whether she still had a home north of Grand Lake, La. But the search for an answer took the 62-year-old widow on an ordeal that could have cost her her life -- if not for a passing Navy rescue helicopter.
Scott weathered Rita with friends in Lake Charles, La., and then scoured news reports all day Saturday -- desperate to learn the fate of her tiny community of about 250 people near Louisiana's southwestern Gulf Coast.
When no news came, Scott set off Sunday morning to see for herself. She drove until she was blocked by huge trees ripped from their roots and tossed down in her path. Undeterred, Scott parked her car, climbed over trees and through branches, and made her way across a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway that leads to Grand Lake on the shore of Calcasieu Lake.
Wading into waist-deep water, the petite retiree, who works part-time as a card dealer at the Isle of Capri casino in Lake Charles, sloshed on in the direction of her house.
"It was the longest six miles of my life," she said a few hours later.
Scott, who has lived in the area since 1971, was dismayed to see her friends' homes destroyed and flooded, the waters choked with cars and other once-precious possessions -- now debris.
Then, to her horror, she recognized her own refrigerator floating toward her in the murky waters.
"I knew then there was nothing left," she recounted, starting to cry. Knowing it was futile to go farther, Scott turned to push through the floodwaters and get back to her car.
But the worst was yet to come. The tide was coming in, and with it a powerful current too strong for her to fight. Anxious, she looked for a dry spot and found one -- the porch of a half-demolished one-story house that was surrounded by water. Standing on a 2-by-12 plank, she was at a loss.
Hurricane Rita may not have been as strong as Katrina -- which struck with such devastating accuracy that a naval commander here termed it "evil" -- but Rita still smashed and drenched many small towns such as Grand Lake in much the same way Katrina demolished coastal Mississippi.
Wiser from Katrina, most residents had evacuated these areas. But some did not, while others, like Scott, ventured early, against the advice of local authorities, to see for themselves what remained. These scattered survivors are the focus of Navy and Coast Guard rescue efforts, which started at daybreak Saturday after Rita passed through.
Navy pilots described the initial search-and-rescue missions as harrowing, as 45-mph winds on the edge of the hurricane bounced the helicopters up and down in near-blinding rain.
"We were being thrown around like a rag doll," said Cmdr. Gerard Hall, of New Orleans, who commands a squadron of MH-53 helicopters flying sorties off the USS Iwo Jima in the Gulf of Mexico.
Returning to the ship at night is particularly precarious, with helicopters making repeated touchdowns before finally achieving hard landings.
"It's pitch dark, it's overcast, we have no visible horizon," making it easy for pilots to suffer vertigo, said Hall, who returned Saturday night after helping rescue about 20 people from a drawbridge. Suddenly, the pitching but brightly lit ship comes into view, and Hall has to execute a careful side landing despite his instinct to fly to it "like a moth to a light."
On Sunday morning, pilot Lt. Mike Stuker and three other crew members lifted off the Iwo Jima's deck in their SH-60 Seahawk with a detachment of helicopters from a Mayport, Fla.- based unit. Their mission: to scour coastal areas near the Louisiana-Texas border that were too windy or rainy to search the day before.
Tracing a coastal road, the crew shook their heads at the devastation below. Houses were ripped from their foundations; others were submerged up to their roofs. Cattle wandered on high ground or lay scattered in fields. Scores of alligators twisted through the swampy waters lapping small towns.
In one of the helicopters, Navy rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Schmidt was flying low in the chopper's open back section, scanning the houses of Grand Lake when he suddenly spotted Scott, waving frantically.
Schmidt used a metal hoist to lower his partner, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael J. Willems, onto the roof next to Scott.
The wind from the rotor blades of the helicopter, hovering at 85 feet, was hurling debris everywhere.
"Keep your eyes closed!" Willems yelled to Scott over the whopping noise of the rotor blades. "Stay back against the wall!" he yelled, worried that when he jumped off the 10-foot roof onto the plank that Scott would be thrown off.
Willems, 21, leapt down, quickly securing Scott in a red float belt.
"I'm ready!" she said.
But as the two prepared for the lift, they lost their balance and both fell into the water. Schmidt rapidly hoisted them out.
Scott, who lived alone, is heartbroken over losing her home. Willems can sympathize. His childhood home in Covington, La., lost its roof when Katrina struck. But at least momentarily, together, they felt comforted by something good. "I felt totally safe" while being lifted into the helicopter, she said. "They were very sweet young men."