NEW ORLEANS -- The three fishing buddies never expected their new Skeeter fishing boat to survive Hurricane Katrina. So when they found only the boat's trailer in storm-ravaged New Orleans, they assumed the worst.
But when two of the owners returned several weeks later, on the first day the water had receded enough to allow travel, they checked their homes and then drove around viewing the devastation. They did indeed find the boat, worse for wear like a battle-scarred veteran, and with a cryptic message written on the side: "This boat rescued over 400 people -- thank you! -- Ken Bellau," along with his telephone number.
The abandoned boat was found on the side of Napoleon Avenue, filthy, damaged, with items abandoned by some of those rescued. What had happened to that boat?
This then is the story of how that Skeeter boat and Ken Bellau, a 37-year-old New Orleans resident, home renovator and competitive bicyclist, would play a significant role in the evacuation efforts of the city's Uptown section.
When Bellau rushed home from a South American bike race, friends asked him to check on missing relatives. His plan was to find those people, then help wherever he could for a day or so and then go home to clean up his own storm damage.
Little did he know that in his first two weeks home, he would end up as a guide to a battalion of 462 California National Guardsmen, rescue more than 400 people trapped in the floodwaters, help capture two looters by ramming their boat, bluff five gang members into a peaceful outcome of an armed standoff and use his connections to bring 500 donated hot pizzas. He would also help with 600 donated steaks to give the Guardsmen and another unit their first normal meals since they’d arrived in the disaster zone.
The sequence of events that would bring Bellau and the Skeeter together began while he was still in South America. Before the storm, the boat's owners, all New Orleans residents -- Ward Howard, Jeff Haynes and Dr. Terry Habig, one of the team doctors for the New Orleans Saints, decided to move their new boat to a safer spot at Dr. Habig's office. The sleek 24-foot center console model with its top-of-the line Yamaha F250 outboard, state-of-the-art electronics and GPS navigation was their fishing pride and joy, recently delivered by Blue Dot Marine, a local dealer. They had only used the boat for 20 hours.
Moving the boat from their in-water slip at The Tally Ho fishing and hunting club would prove a wise but fateful decision. The Tally Ho, the oldest such club in North America, had survived other hurricanes and even wars since 1815, its founding year, but this time it would be one of the hurricane's first victims, flattened and washed away entirely by Katrina.
By now, Bellau was back in New Orleans and trying to contact the people on his list. His frustration began to mount as checkpoints were set up around the city and he was rebuffed at every turn.
"Here I was, trying to track down these friends and relatives, and here were federal and state people in trucks and boats wearing SWAT gear, intimidating people who were desperate for help," Bellau said, "I just thought I could help since I knew the area and could drive a boat. In the Uptown area where I lived, these were my neighbors and fellow citizens of a really vibrant city. And yet, the media focused mostly on the negative showing only violence and looting, even on South American TV. It really made me angry."
That was the turning point for Bellau. He went home, put on a set of fatigues and a 40mm handgun with holster, looking as official as any one and set out.
"It was total chaos, no one in charge, no organization, nothing was happening," he said. "I never expected to be wearing a gun for protection in the streets of New Orleans."
He started looking again for people when he noticed the 24-foot Skeeter idling down the flooded street. A small group of men was onboard.
He asked them to stop and talked with them, whom he said were residents from a local substance-abuse treatment center.
"They were mighty glad to see me, as they thought I was some kind of official since I was armed and in military fatigues," Bellau said. "They decided that they couldn't do any more good, and all the hassles of being stopped were stressing them, so they gave me the boat. I dropped them off, and they returned to the treatment center."
Bellau was mighty glad to see them, too. Until he found the roomy, stable Skeeter with its powerful V6 Yamaha, he had been paddling seven hours a day in a pirogue, a long, narrow boat favored by Louisianans. But it wasn't much for rescue. One day, he rescued a St. Bernard dog and was trying to get a woman to join them in the small boat. She refused because it looked unsafe and was tipsy with the big dog. However, there were natural gas leaks all around them and they could smell them, a dangerous situation. Finally, she relented and came aboard. As they were leaving, a gas explosion blew up a nearby house and knocked both of them out of the boat. The dog stayed in the boat. Bellau said the woman was very angry with him for her fall into the smelly water. Compared to the pirogue, the Skeeter was the Queen Mary.
"I got the Skeeter on Day 3 after the hurricane, which is how people had begun referring to time and date. Days and calendar dates had no meaning. Everything revolved around the hurricane. I had been bringing in lots of people using the Skeeter when a military patrol stopped me and wanted to use the boat. When they found out I knew the area, they asked me to assist."
The unit was from the 2nd Battalion of 185th Armor National Guard from San Diego. Maj. Frank Emanuel, the commanding officer, would later joke that they commandeered not only the boat but also Bellau.
"Ken knew where everything was in Uptown, the infrastructure, schools, streets, dead-ends, power grid locations," Emanuel said. "He even drove us around before our military vehicles arrived. He was a critical component in boat operations as our liaison to find more boats to use. He just wanted to help. It totally blew us away."
If by now, you get the feeling Ken is a little bit of Indiana Jones, a miracle worker and an Army Scout all rolled into one. you might not be too far off.
For example, the battalion needed a headquarters and secure place for its tactical operation center. Bellau knew the Sophie B. Wright School was nearby and not in use. It wasn't too long before the military engineers had power restored there making the school the first building in New Orleans after Katrina to have power back on and air conditioning. It was a much-needed relief for the Guardsmen and a real boost to their morale.
According to Maj. Emanuel, before the battalion would depart New Orleans, it would tally 11,023 structure searches, many of which Bellau participated in. Ken was also involved in 92 water rescues using the Skeeter while with the Guard.
All told, 400 people -- from babies to the elderly, from gang members to stranded rescuers -- rode the Skeeter to safety. But that wasn't the only way Bellau helped.
He knew the owner of Moe's Pizza, which baked 500 pizzas for the guard battalion -- the first normal food they had eaten during their time there. Chris Rose, an enterprising newspaper reporter arranged for Antoine's, one of the city's great landmark restaurants, to donate 600 frozen steaks, which would otherwise have spoiled. Bellau pitched in and helped scrounge up some grills and charcoal. Twice now, America's Finest got to enjoy fine N'awlins cuisine, although not in the manner most visitors enjoy it.
A BOAT TO RELY ON
The Skeeter boat that fate had delivered to Bellau soon became one of the most trustworthy tools the battalion had.
"Every morning, I'd paddle a canoe out to the boats where we'd tied them up, and often the only one floating was the Skeeter," Bellau said. "We used an abandoned Shell station for our 'marina,' and the pump islands were our docks where we’d tie up the boats each night. It was too shallow near the school for anything other than a canoe.
"Most donated or commandeered boats only lasted a day or so in this harsh environment, but we needed four boats a day so we were always looking for replacements. They'd sink overnight or have engine or propeller problems we couldn't fix. But not once did that Yamaha fail to start, and it ran non-stop dawn to dark for nearly two weeks.
"To prevent the Skeeter from being stolen, each night I would disconnect the battery and take the ignition switch assembly with me. Then, each day I'd re-install it and off we'd go."
He wasn't the only one the boat helped. The Guard said actor Sean Penn used the Skeeter to rescue a stranded friend after the boat he had used earlier filled with water and couldn't be used.
While reliability wasn't a worry with the Skeeter or the Yamaha, finding fuel was.
"The Guard was helpful but had mostly diesel," Bellau said. "I got most of my fuel from sending text messages over my cell phone to friends, and each night, they'd deliver 15 or so gallons. Text messaging was the only communication that worked while I was there."
Each day, Bellau and several Guardsmen would patrol the streets turned waterways, looking for people to evacuate from the floodwaters. At one point, the boat's depth finder showed the water was 21 feet deep.
"Even so, we ground down the prop down pretty good, hitting submerged cars, trucks, houses, fences, concrete slabs, downed power poles and wires," Bellau said.
"At one point, as we were throttling up to leave, we snagged a power line and the prop just wrapped the line up. But there was so much engine torque, it actually pulled down the power pole which happened to have a transformer on it. It narrowly missed the boat. It took some time to free the prop, but It happened so often, we were getting pretty good at it."
Searching for survivors was a priority.
"The Yamaha was very quiet, which helped us hear cries for help," he said. "Some were pretty weak. We'd sound the boat's horn, calling for people and if they were in the attic or inside, their replies were pretty muffled.
"Once, we ended up with 39 adults and children in the boat all at one time. We had no choice. It was dangerous and scary, but had to be done. The water was close to coming in over the sides, but we only had to go a couple of blocks so we went very slowly and no one moved in the boat.
"Obviously, we were overloaded, and I wouldn't do anything like that normally. But this wasn't a normal time. Thank God for all that flotation in the boat. Even under that load, the motor still purred.
"In fact, I can't say enough good things about the boat and motor. We towed in a lot of boats that had begun to leak or sink or whose engines quit or props broke. I really came to trust that Yamaha. It started every day without a hiccup and worked all day with no problems. It was one of those things you knew you could count on every day. It was very reliable."
DRAMA AMID THE FLOODWATERS
As the days passed, Bellau and the Guards found fewer people wanting to evacuate. Some were hiding, fearful of what looters might do to their belongings. And people thought the worst was over.
"We encountered looters, too," Bellau said. "For several days, we saw two guys in the same boat in the area and thought at first they were there to help. But when we saw a bicycle in the boat, we got suspicious.
"So several Guardsmen were with me and we approached them in the Skeeter, hailing to them to stop. But they wouldn't. To get them to stop, I had to ram the other boat and shove it up against a house, trapping them.
"These guys were definitely looters. They had more than $11,000 in cash plus a lot of jewelry and watches, not to mention two handguns."
The Guardsmen held them until the police came to get them. The men had Syrian passports but no other ID, so the police turned them over to the FBI.
While ramming looters' boats might get the adrenalin pumping, an even more frightening episode was yet to come. Bellau said they found five men dressed in gang gear on the porch of a house, and they were nervous.
"As we approached them, I asked the guys if they wanted a ride to dry land. They said no," Bellau said. "We could tell they all had guns under their shirts, so we asked if they were armed. They denied it.
"Things were starting to get tense now. I asked one if he would lift up his shirt, and he refused. He said if he lifted his shirt, there might be some shooting.
"I told them that in case they hadn't noticed, the Guardsmen had slightly more firepower with their M16s. It got very quiet right about then, and adding to the tension was the complete quiet of the neighborhood. No birds, no traffic, just the lapping of the rising water and the quiet idling of the motor.
"Something had to happen and soon. So I told the speaker I'd show him my sidearm if he’d show me his. I held it out to him. He stared at it, broke into a smile, took my handgun and then pulled his out of his shirt and let me examine his. This broke the tension, and after we returned the side arms, the gang members agreed to leave their guns in the house. After they came out, we could still see the outlines under their shirts. We decided to not push the issue, as we'd accomplished out goal. But the Guardsmen were very, very alert until we got them ashore and off the boat."
HIGH, LOW MOMENTS
The rescuers' days were mostly dark and depressing with so much destruction and death all around them. Bellau said the only bright spots were pulling people out of terrible situations and that they were always grateful.
"My most gratifying moment happened on Day 14, my last day in the Skeeter," Bellau said. "We were near our makeshift marina where I'd go out to get the Skeeter. About a block away on Napoleon Avenue, there was a dry cleaner, and on the second floor was the apartment of Dr. M.J. Hirsch, a retiree suffering from dementia.
"We must have passed his place 100 times, and on the last day, there he was, waving at us from the window. He said he had waved every day but was missed by all the rescue teams. We were stunned -- how did he get there? Worse, how could all of us have missed him?
"We got him out and saved him. I called his relatives in Dallas and let him talk to them."
Bellau also said there were some light moments. For example, he said it was a kick to be piloting the Skeeter at 45 mph down the flooded streets among the tall buildings and to pass speed limit signs of 35 mph. And he gave the younger Guardsmen boating lessons, as many had never driven a boat this powerful.
But with the good comes the bad. Bellau's worst moment came in helping an elderly lady.
"She told us to leave, saying she was fine, she just wanted to be left alone and didn't want to leave," he said. "She was one of those traditional sweet Southern ladies. Even in the heat and humidity, she was dressed all proper in a long dress, sitting on her porch, using a fan.
"Most of those who didn't want to leave their homes were elderly or afraid looters would get their possessions. She was content to stay home in familiar surroundings. We made sure she had food and water and checked her frequently."
The government hadn't yet authorized the rescuers to forcibly require evacuation, so they could only continue to look in on her and see if she was OK.
"We went back to bring her more water and food, but she had died in the night," Bellau said. "We found her in the water. She may have slipped or maybe got an infection or drowned. The floodwater was really a nasty toxic soup. Had she only gone with us, she might be alive today."
EVIDENCE OF RESCUE EFFORTS
The lost, but now found boat had clearly been through the wringer. There was damage to the bow and part of the stern. And it was filthy, smelly and littered with evacuees' personal belongings -- children's achievement awards, toys, water bottles, even a small American flag much the worse for wear, but defiantly and proudly displayed from the starboard gunnel, facing the street. It was as if it was a statement that its mission was accomplished.
But it was the message scrawled on the side of the boat that led the owners to Bellau and his story of helping others in the aftermath of the greatest natural disaster ever to hit the United States.
"I came there to help thinking it was going to be for a short period. But the more I saw, I realized early on there would be little help and few rescue efforts until someone took charge," Bellau said. "The police agencies would typically follow the media around. In those early days, at least in my area, I never saw them come in with any evacuees. Thank God for the California National Guard and others like them.
"But I know, too, there were plenty of good people working hard to help others. Look at us, just one boat and we pulled out 400 survivors. And others were doing the same and more. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote the message on the boat was to let others know what that boat had gone through and accomplished."
National Guard Capt. David Como, who was probably the last to drive the boat due to the receding floodwaters, said the Yamaha was so reliable, it reminded him of those ads where the watch takes a licking and keeps on ticking. "Well, that was the same for that engine."
Shortly after the boat was discovered and photos taken, it disappeared. Some say it was stolen, others say it was picked up by the state of Louisiana and taken to storage near Belle Chasse. The search is on. However, word of this Skeeter/Yamaha rig's 400 rescues was spreading. Howard received a call from Greg Lambousy of the Louisiana State Museum, asking to put the boat in a display of hurricane artifacts. Yamaha and Skeeter might like to have the boat, too, for boat show displays as a testimony to their products' ruggedness and reliability. But first, the boat has to be found. Howard thought the museum would be the best place for it.
The Times-Picayune newspaper ran a photo of the boat with its message and Bellau said that while they were rescuing people, news crews interviewed them, including CNN, NBC and CBS.
But what of the owners, would they want their boat back? Ward Howard said the boat will be a total loss, but they will replace it with an identical boat. But this time, they might give the boat a name. He said the name Katrina 400 seems to fit.
No doubt thousands of ordinary people all along the Gulf Coast did extraordinary things to help strangers and neighbors after the hurricane and flooding, just as Ken Bellau did. By the story Bellau and his boat, set amid the horrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina, shows us how one determined, caring man can indeed make a difference.