Rescue mission in Katrina’s wake | VailDaily.com

Rescue mission in Katrina’s wake

Edward Stoner

Bret Hartman/Vail DailySteve Katz, who lives part time in New Orleans and part time in Vail, works in his vail office Wednesday. Katz helped evacuate his mother and grandmother after Hurricane Katrina hit the South East and will be returning today to access damages to his property and to volunteer assistance to anyone who needs it.

VAIL – Steve Katz had gone a thousand miles to New Orleans to rescue his stranded 98-year-old grandmother in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. After flying to Baton Rouge, he headed to New Orleans with a lifejacket, ready to save her.That’s when he got word rescue workers had just moved in to bring her to safety. His pleas to rescue agencies had been answered by someone.Now, with his New Orleans home underwater, Katz’s second home in Vail is his primary residence. But his family is evacuated, and he knows many from his hometown are much worse off.

“Look at me,” he said, back in Vail for a few days. “I’m fine.”His grandmother, Ruth Katz, and mother, Celia Katz, live in New Orleans in separate homes near Tulane University. As Katrina approached, he offered to fly them to Denver to wait out the storm, but they didn’t want to go, especially because his grandmother doesn’t move around very well.”You figure she’ll weather the storm and they’ll be fine,” he said. “It won’t be pleasant but it’s easier than trying to move her.”The 140-mph winds roared through the city Aug. 29, and his mother’s house was damaged. But the worst was yet to come. Levees broke, floodwaters rose and looters hit the neighborhood, Katz said.Katz was initially able to stay in phone contact with his mother and grandmother, though his mother told him she couldn’t get through to 911. He called Colorado State Patrol to find out what roads were still useable around New Orleans.

Using that information, his mother was able to drive with her daughter out of the city. They went to Houston, then to Chattanooga, Tenn., to stay with family.The grandmother was still at home with her aide, with the floodwaters rising. Soon there was 3 1/2 feet of water in her house. Katz told the aide to bring her up to the attic.They had some food and gas for cooking to last them a while. Then the waters submerged the phone, and he lost communication with them. They eventually ran out of water and had to boil street water, Katz said.Katz and his family started calling whatever agencies they thought could help. Katz’s wife, Mary Sue, helped with the phone calls from Vail.”I was nuts,” she said. “I didn’t have time to focus on what I lost personally. I was focusing on saving my family.”

They called the Red Cross, Louisiana State Patrol and the Louisiana National Guard, but no one could give them assurances that the grandmother would be rescued.So Steve Katz decided to take matters into his own hands. With the help of a favor from a friend, he was able to book a last-minute flight to Baton Rouge on Sept. 1. From there, a friend gave him a car with a tank full of much-sought-after gas. As he approached New Orleans, a rescue worker traveling with Katz found out that his men were going to save his grandmother. Katz met her at the hospital.A ghostly scene unfolded as he drove through the city, he said.”It was the eeriest feeling I’ve ever had,” he said. “I was in a city I’d been in all my life. All the trees were down. … I never saw another car. I never saw a person. It was a nice sunny day. It was the strangest thing. You were totally alone in the city.”

Katz took his grandmother to a shelter in Baton Rouge and then to a nursing home in Alexandria.The Katzes’ home is near the broken 17th Street Levee. He is going to New Orleans this weekend to assess the damage at his home, which was in 7 feet of water after the hurricane, he said.The operation of his company, Katz Factoring, a financing company, is up in the air. He isn’t sure if his six employees, now evacuated across the region, will return.He was at Wal-Mart in Avon on Monday buying oars for a borrowed boat. He plans to go back later this month to volunteer for the Red Cross, or whatever group needs help. “I’ll do anything,” he said.

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 604, or estoner@vaildaily.com. Vail, Colorado