NEW ORLEANS — The man, nearly 90 years old, feebly made his way into Ken Bellau’s fiberglass fishing boat. Once onboard, he quietly asked Bellau to check on his grandson. “He’s right over there,” the old man said.
Bellau agreed, motoring slowly down the street. He didn’t see anybody needing rescue. He was hot and anxious, and had already been in the water too long that day in 2005.
Then he spotted the body, a teenage boy face-down in the water. The old man had watched the boy tread water, panic when something caught his leg, drown and then float in silence for days. The old man made the sign of the cross, and Bellau hit the motor and moved on.
In New Orleans, moving on is what survivors of Hurricane Katrina are expected to do. Ten years later, the recovery is so strong in certain parts of the city that visitors might never know what happened. But for people like Bellau, Katrina remains close.
The 10th-generation New Orleans native spent three weeks on the water in the chaotic aftermath of the hurricane, coaxing people into his boat, dodging their bullets, rescuing their pets and breaking into their houses for supplies when the city was dark, dangerous and uninhabitable. His efforts have been credited with saving more than 400 lives, a feat that prompted the Presbytere, part of the Louisiana State Museum, to put his boat on permanent display outside its main entrance in Jackson Square.
“Every day he went out there, he was sacrificing his life,” says Alan Miranda, a California National Guard corporal and Iraq war veteran who met Bellau days after the levee breaches. “The guy should have gotten a Congressional Medal of Honor, in my opinion. . . . God knows how many people would have died without him.”
In some ways, Bellau had been preparing for Katrina his entire life. More than 20 years ago, while stranded on the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge without a car, he bought a bicycle. Then he joined the cycling club and made a discovery about endurance: “I was pretty good at it.”
He started competing globally and wound up at the Olympic trials in 1996. By the time Katrina struck, he was finishing the Tour of French Guyana, a race in South America, as a member of the Louisiana-based team Herring Gas. He learned of the pending storm on an airport television.
Luckily, a friend had snatched Bellau’s Ford Contour and moved it to Mississippi for safekeeping. Back in the United States, Bellau got his car, stocked it with supplies, threw his bike on a rack and sneaked back into town two days after the levees broke. He wore military fatigues and carried a .40-caliber handgun in a side holster, which helped get him waved through military checkpoints.
Back in town, he visited his house in the Irish Channel, about two miles upriver from the French Quarter. It was dry, and so was his cat. So he drove around the neighborhood.
Everywhere, he saw old people, the infirm, stray pets, all of them walking the streets dazed, with no way to get to safety.
So he started giving rides.
His first passengers he’ll never forget: a couple suffering from diabetes stuck with dangerously warm insulin because of the citywide power failure. He drove them to the downtown convention center, which was swarming with hundreds of people suffering similar hardships.
Before he let the couple out at a military medical tent, Bellau’s car was swallowed by the crowd. Some people jumped on his hood. “They wanted a ride out,” he says. “I was surrounded within 90 seconds.”
He hit the gas and escaped in reverse. From then on, he vowed to save whomever he could find, but he would do it alone, away from authorities, and often in the dark of night.
“I knew it was going to be dangerous, but had no idea I was going to be so alone,” he says. “I thought I would be coming in to back up the police or back up groups of normal guys coming in to help. But there was nobody.”
The next day “was hell,” Bellau says. He procured a pirogue, a small flat-bottomed boat similar to a kayak but meant for navigating swamps, and set out into the water. He saw a fire in the distance and, using a broomstick, paddled closer and heard shouting.
A house was on fire, and a couple were trapped on their porch. They immediately tried to jump into Bellau’s pirogue, which already held a Saint Bernard dog and two cats in a laundry basket. A helicopter appeared and, aiming to put out the fire, dumped thousands of gallons of water on everything.
Everyone went overboard — the cats to the bottom. But Bellau managed to pull all the people and animals back up and paddle toward higher ground.
He went days like that, negotiating with people throughout Uptown to come out of their homes into his boat, even though he was a stranger and didn’t have a good answer to the question: “Where are you bringing me?”
“I’d say, ‘a better place,’ ” Bellau recalled. “I had one guy ask, ‘Well what’s a better place than New Orleans?’ ”
Soon, Bellau enlisted the help of Candy Johnson, his girlfriend on Long Island, who temporarily took leave of her job as an accountant. She scoured the Internet message boards, particularly on the news Web site Nola.com, for pleas from displaced New Orleanians asking for someone to check on their loved ones, pets and houses.
Her home office became a war room. She marked addresses on a blown-up map of New Orleans and prioritized them. Every night, she e-mailed Bellau a new list of addresses located in an area that would be navigable by water in a single day.
All day and often at night, Bellau paddled through the wreckage of the city. The place smelled like death. Even the birds disappeared. At night, he would stash the boat he had hot-wired with a screwdriver, bring home the battery so it wouldn’t get stolen, and use a cordless drill to siphon more gas from abandoned cars.
“He started getting Rambo on me; he wanted to fix everything,” Johnson says. “He was so low . . . I was talking him off the ledge every single day.”
The address lists were precious. Sometimes before he even reached a house, he would hear the screaming of people who had been trapped for days without food or water. While nearly all were thankful for his arrival, many refused to leave. One man, a former Marine, addressed him from the roof of his house wearing nothing but boxer shorts and pointing a handgun.
Bellau would talk with them and return with food, or at least to check on their condition. One elderly woman who insisted on staying in her home despite the intense heat was dead the next time he circled back. That hardened his resolve.
“I wasn’t being diplomatic and certainly not sympathetic,” he says. “I told people, ‘If you don’t come with me now, you’re going to die.’ ”
By the seventh day, Bellau, depressed and hungry himself, was plotting an exit strategy. He ferried a family of 10 to a man with a truck, who was taking the people he rescued to safety. He told the man that this was his last trip.
An elderly woman gripped his arm.
“You can’t leave,” she said. “These are your people, and there’s more of them out there.”
“That kind of grabbed me and turned me around,” he says.
He returned to his list and motored on.
Bellau was staring at the water at the end of a street, dressed in out-of-date fatigues and white tennis shoes caked in gunk, when the National Guard finally arrived.
Bellau “looked like a looter,” said Mike Kelly, a guardsman from California.
The guardsmen gave him fresh clothes and military boots, and they spread word up their chain of command that they had found a guy who knew the streets and had intelligence they needed: where to get boats and gas. Where to find elderly people who needed help. Which streets were haunted by armed junkies.
“I said, ‘This is the person we need to know,’ ” Kelly recalled.
Within 48 hours, they had a platoon. Until the water receded, Bellau helped direct search-and-rescue missions. The guardsmen were struck by his determination. But they also feared he was running too hard.
During downtime, when Bellau opened up, they learned he was driven by fear: He worried that his childhood home on the city’s flooded eastern flank was destroyed and that his mother, whom he had been unable to reach, was dead.
“I think he felt if he stopped he was vulnerable. Physically and mentally. He kept going and kept going,” said Miranda, the Guard corporal.
Eventually, the water receded, and Bellau finally had a chance to find his mother’s house. His fears were confirmed: The place had taken five feet of water. It was uninhabitable.
But his mother was safe in Mississippi.
As New Orleans inched, and later sprinted, toward recovery, so did Bellau. He took a job as head coach of Tulane University’s cycling team and restarted his own career by joining Palmer Cycling, another professional team. But his Katrina experience haunted him.
In October 2005, after Johnson urged him to leave New Orleans and join her in New York, he stopped taking her calls and broke off the relationship. He started seeing himself as a survivalist, suspicious of authority, someone who saw vulnerabilities everywhere he looked. He stocked his car with emergency food. He was, he says, “just armed to the teeth.”
Five years passed, and Bellau’s story spread. When the state museum opened an exhibit called “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond,” Bellau’s 24-foot boat joined other artifacts from the storm, including a wrecked piano owned by music legend Fats Domino and seats from the heavily damaged Superdome.
The exhibit, he says, helped bring him back. He started cycling past the museum on daily training rides, the boat a familiar blur in the corner of his eye. Eventually, he began to view his experience as a story he knew, but that someone else lived.
Last November, Bellau and Johnson, both 47, got married in Jackson Square, in front of the boat and nearly 200 people. Among the guests was Donna Niemoller of Sacramento. After the storm, Bellau had located her daughter’s home and rescued her cat. Now, Neimoller takes Bellau out to dinner once a year.
“So many people needed him,” she says of Bellau. “But he needed a little bit of people, too.”
Guarino is a freelance writer.