Sometimes heroes show up

Posted: Sep 12, 2005 12:00 AM
Sometimes heroes just show up. Last week, when Hurricane Katrina buried an entire city beneath water, Erica Wickam and James McCloud showed up for each other. Through small acts of heroism, they were able to make it out alive.

On August 29, the storm hit. Erica Wickam, her two children ages 10 and 12, and their dog was huddled in a small apartment complex in New Orleans East. By August 30, the water had rushed in, filling her first floor apartment.

Frantically, Erica and her family scrambled up to a neighbor’s second floor. Other members of the apartment complex did the same. As the water continued to rise, some of them began to claw at the ceiling, trying to create extra crawl space. For three days, Erica was trapped in that second floor apartment. She watched and prayed.

Then the water began to recede. They needed food. Across the street was a convenience store. Erica and a couple of neighbors grabbed a mattress to help buoy them across the flooded streets. About 15 feet away was a car. Inside, a family of five had drowned. They decided the water was too deep. Instead they stood by the side of the building, and fished out whatever food and drinks happened to float by—mostly chips and Gatorade. That was enough to live off of.

Many of Erica’s neighbors in the apartment complex were elderly. She worried whether or not they had been able to escape the first floor before the water rolled in. She had to check. She made her way through the first floor apartments. Her neighbors, James and Ruth McCloud, were floating on top of their refrigerator. The elderly couple was barely alive. Erica helped them up to the top floor.

On the fourth day they saw helicopters. The rescue teams were picking up survivors from the interstate. Erica and her neighbors took a futon mattress, and used it as a raft. They had to make it to flat, dry land. They used discarded pieces of wood as oars, and paddled one mile through the sewage laden water toward the interstate. Drowned, bloated corpses surrounded them. There were snakes in the water. Erica feared attack by hungry alligators.

That night they made it to the interstate. Helicopters were moving survivors, seven at a time. James, Ruth, Erica, her two children and their dog flew out together to a makeshift care unit.

They arrived to see thousands of people roughly divided into two groups: on one side were the thousands who had been bussed out of the metrodome. On the other side were the sick and dying, mostly elderly. No one was tending to them.

James, who had had three heat surgeries, began to feel tightness in his chest. First there was dizziness, and then the nausea set in. He began to throw up. He needed medical care. Helicopters were flying evacuees to the airport. They were only authorized to take children and elderly people. No more than one adult per family could fly out. And no pets. They told Erica they could fly her children out, but that she had to stay behind.

That was unacceptable to James. He knew Erica had saved his life by leading him out of his flooded apartment. She was the only one who had checked on them. He refused to leave her behind. Hunched over and sick, James refused to receive medial treatment unless they let Erica fly out with him. The exacerbated medical personnel waved Erica onboard. She emptied her only remaining clothes from her knapsack, and stuck her dog in the bag. She got on the helicopter.

Erica would not have made it out without James. And he may have remained trapped in his apartment without her. Together, they did what heroes do—they showed up for each other. A week after the floods, James, Ruth, Erica, her two children and their dog flew out of New Orleans together.