NEW ORLEANS -- Julia Weathers is what some would call a victim. When Hurricane Katrina ripped through her neighborhood in New Orleans, she was stranded on a roof top for over two days without electricity, communications or sanitation. However, if you ask her, she’s anything but a victim; she considers herself a miracle.
As the water came up to unanticipated heights, Weathers quickly realized she was stranded for an indefinite period of time. She had stored ice in bags and filled a bathtub full of water before the storm, but with the new reality of a severe situation, she knew she would need to be evacuated.
“We heard on the radio at that time, when we still had batteries, that if we wanted to be rescued, we should go to the top of the roof,” she said slowly with a thick southern accent. “They also said they would rescue children with a parent and elderly people.”
With the promise of rescue in mind, Weathers and hordes of others flocked to the top of waterlogged houses.
“We all pulled together really well. We helped the elderly get to the top of the roof. I saw this one guy pull a refrigerator to his balcony and then helped his wife climb on that to use as a stepstool to the roof.”
“Another guy made a boat out of a mattress and some plywood. He went to the store and got bread and water and delivered it to all the different rooftops.”
She, like hundreds of others in her neighborhood, spent days in the heat sitting on the shingles of her roof watching rescue helicopters pluck people out of the floods. As she sat, she watched the situation below progressively deteriorate.
“At first, the water was just to the top of the tires on my car. I had parked it up on a hill,” she said. After she made a short phone call to a friend, she turned around to see her car submerged in water. “The trunk had somehow come open, and all I could see was the top of the open trunk. Everything else was under the water. I couldn’t believe how fast it happened.”
Weathers had nothing but time to watch the water seep into her community and sweep away the city life and material securities of American civilization. One thing that wasn’t washed away in the current was the resolve of the people on high ground waiting to be rescued.
“Rescue crews were always coming and going, and we watched them fly back and forth for a long time,” she said. “Sometimes they said they were coming back, but they never did.”
“I watched a lot of rescues. Some people were hooked up to a harness, some were put in a basket,” she said, “but after a while we started to get impatient. I was wondering when it would be my turn.”
The crews worked on and off throughout the neighborhood, and when Julia saw the chopper picking up people at a neighboring building, she knew it was almost her chance.
Common with all rescue missions in light of the hurricane, there were many people who needed a lift and not a lot of space on the bird. Weathers flashed her military ID in hopes of gaining a seat on the helicopter. Her efforts paid off tremendously.
The crewmen immediately noticed her ID and welcomed her aboard the aircraft.
“I had a bag of clothes and things I needed, but they said I could only bring a few things,” she recalled. “They did let me get my prescriptions and a few things, though.”
In the end, she made it out with the help of a National Guardsman whose name she didn’t catch, who hooked her up to a harness and drew her up into the chopper.
Being rescued from a horrendous situation is lucky, but not as lucky as what happened next.
“The helo made an emergency landing because a big garbage bag had blown into the propellers, and they had to do some preventative maintenance on it. They didn’t go back for anyone else,” she sighed. “I was the last person they saved that day.”
Although it’s unfortunate the chopper had mechanical problems, Weathers felt even more awed that she had made it out alive and was evacuated to the Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse, La., approximately 10 miles from New Orleans. She was taken to a gym where she could shower, eat and sleep until the situation calms down.
“I had a choice to either come here or go to the Super Dome. Which one would you have picked?” she asked with wide eyes and a big smile, referring to the deteriorating conditions at the dome.
Since arriving in Belle Chasse, Weathers has returned the favor by working as a desk attendant at the gymnasium. Here, she watches over the building, which is currently being used for showering, housing, and storage of equipment from members of all services who have arrived to provide humanitarian assistance.
“I sat around for a while and figured out what was going on, and after a while I started sitting behind the desk. People think I work here,” she laughed.
Williams’ future plans are to catch a ride to Houston, where she plans to live with her cousin.
“I may try to live out on my own all over again,” she said uncertainly, “but I don’t really know anything right now. I’m just happy to be here and I know that God has a plan for me and will take care of me.”
“When I think about all those people who may still be on the rooftops and the people who may not be on the rooftops,” she said softly, “I realize how incredibly blessed and lucky I really am.”
Although Weathers has recently been under what she calls the most stressful situation of her life, she puts her own losses aside to assist service members, greeting them with a sparkle in her eye as she watches their facility.
“I don’t know why I made it when so many people didn’t, but one thing I do know is I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for the rescue workers who are helping us through this,” she continued. “Some of them don’t even have homes to go home to, but they’re out here helping people, and I think that’s amazing.”