Survivor stories: "Once the press came, things changed."

Derrick Tabb ReBirth Brass Band.jpg
Derrick Tabb, 31, stole five vehicles on the Wednesday morning after the hurricane, and transported dozens of elderly evacuees from flooded neighborhoods to the Convention Center. When it looked like no buses were coming, he coaxed reluctant family members into his stolen van and drove them to Houston, where they stayed in a church shelter for two days. A native of the Treme neighborhood, Tabb plays snare drum for the ReBirth Brass Band, the legendary New Orleans second-line group, which reunited ten days after the storm for a concert in Memphis. By the time his band mates were telling the story onstage in Minneapolis three days later, the van had become a bus, with a police escort to Houston.


A lot of my family, they didn't even want to leave. Everybody in New Orleans didn't really think it was going to hit. So I had to make them at least go to a hotel with me. It was safer than the house, and I didn't have a vehicle large enough to handle my whole family. It was my mother, my aunt, my sister, her children, my children, my wife, my mother-in-law, and a couple of grandchildren. The Baronne Plaza Hotel was almost packed, but I got three rooms. In the midst of all that, the hurricane came.

After the storm, I got in my car to ride around, checked out a few places in the city, went by another band member's house to see how he was doing, because he was the last person I talked to before the phones went out. I was on the interstate when I seen that he had water above the first floor of his apartment building. The police was making me turn around. You couldn't go any further on the interstate.


I turned around and went back to the hotel. I told my wife, "They have a lot of water by the trumpet player's house." And I laid down and went to sleep for 45 minutes to an hour. When I woke up, the hotel was in about four feet of water. I was real surprised. Everybody was trying to leave the hotel, because they didn't have any lights or any water. I told my wife I wanted everybody to leave, but I wanted to make sure everybody leaves. A guy took his truck and brought my mother-in-law, my wife, and my children to my mother-in-law's house. But the truck took in a lot of water and he didn't come back for another trip. We was stuck in the hotel Tuesday night.

We sat down and listened to the news, and around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, they said that the water's going to rise to 17 feet all around the city because of the levee breaking. That drove me crazy, man.

In the morning, I was like, "I have to get my children and my mother-in-law." With 17 feet of water, they weren't going to survive. So I stole a van. It was a Ford 15-passenger van in the parking lot of the hotel.

In the midst of me stealing that van, as my family was loading up, they had a lot of other families, elderly people, in the hotel, and they wanted to get in the van. But we didn't have enough room to put everybody in. So they had like a couple SUVs and another van, and I stole them, too. Then the people and their families drived the van out of the hotel.

This was my first time ever stealing a car. I know you don't believe it, but I have a lot of friends with car shops. I had two cars that were stolen. One of them I found on the street, and I had to use a screwdriver to drive it back. A friend on mine came and told me how to put it up. The thief had just gone joyriding.

I got five cars [from the hotel] altogether. One SUV Yukon, two 15-passenger vans, and two Ford Explorers. I had to start the cars for people. A couple of them knew how to start them once I popped it up for them. Then I loaded up my family and I left.

I dropped off my mom and them at the Convention Center, then I went to look for my wife and daughter and my mother-in-law, because the last word was they had to get up out the house. When I got there, they wasn't there. I went back Uptown to the Garden District and kept looking for them.

In the midst of me riding down St. Charles Street, they had a lot of old people just walking with canes and stuff. I was in a 15-passenger van, so I gave them a ride down to the convention center. I made three or four trips from St. Charles and Louisiana to the Convention Center.

Meanwhile, a friend of the family picked up my mother-in-law and my wife's aunt and brought them to the convention center. But my wife went to the Superdome. When I walked into the crowd at the Convention Center, we spotted my brother-in-law, and he brought us to our mother-in-law. I stayed at the Convention Center overnight because I couldn't find my wife and children. I didn't find my wife until two days later. She was in Houston. They made her walk across the Crescent City Connection.

I had to sleep on the ground outside Wednesday night, right by the Convention Center, because we had the children in the van. Before that I was making trips back and forth all day. It was me and my sister-in-law the whole trip.

It was horrible. It was just wild out there. It was all right 'til the police came with the press. Once the press came, things changed. The police was down with you taking food and all that, 'cause they was trying feed everybody. Then when the press came, they made it look like people was just looting. A lot of people wasn't looting just to be looting. They were really feeding people. You didn't want to see a lot of old people and babies crying for water and stuff. I watched my mother-in-law cry for some water. That part was just sad. I had to watch a couple people die. I watched more than a couple, I watched like about five people die, because I was walking back and forth the whole night. The police shot a couple people. It was about the worst situation in my life. I have never been in a situation like that.

I seen people dying like flies. Everywhere I went I seen somebody dying, 'cause in the midst of all of that, I'm still looking for my wife. Back and forth at the Superdome, on the bridge, at the convention center, back Uptown, I never stopped running until about 10:00 that night. And I had took the van at 8:30 in the morning. I got about an hour of sleep.

The next day I got up, and I couldn't take no more. My mother-in-law, she didn't want to get into a stolen van, 'cause in case the police stopped us, she didn't want to go to jail and be in a worse situation. I was like, "We gotta get out of here. They're never gonna come with no buses." We stole a van just to get out of the hotel to the convention center. We didn't plan on stealing a van and going all the way to Texas.

My mother-in-law never got in the van. I got my mother and my aunt, but my aunt even got out the van. I ain't going to say we have a big Christian family, but when it comes down to consequences with the police, they not gonna have it. I was trying to get them to get in, with my mom and my sister, her children, my sister-and-law. We got in the van and cut out.

We headed straight to Texas. With the ReBirth Brass Band, we travel six months out of the year, sometimes longer, so I know the road. I didn't come up against any dead ends. I knew Houston a little bit, too, so I knew how to get to the Astrodome.

The police searched us when we got to the dome. I told him the van was stolen, and they took the van. They didn't arrest me at all. The police treated me like a hero, damn near. They took my gun. But to tell you the truth, they treated me real nice. They didn't handle me bad in any kind of way. But they was searching everybody and doing all the procedures, just doing their job. Especially one of the cops was like a real, I would say, redneck. He was really cool to me. He was chewing his tobacco and everything. He just wanted to tell me the rules and regulations of Texas, that I couldn't have my gun.

Everything went smoothly. He gave me all my equipment, 'cause I had brought all of it. I do tracks. So I moved all my equipment to the hotel on Monday. That was one of the reasons I didn't want to move without my equipment, neither. That was like $15,000 worth of equipment.

After they took away the van, we walked right across the street. I had heard that they was having trouble at the dome, so I was going to get a room at the hotel. Just then these two ladies walked up, the sweetest two ladies in the world, Minervia and Kelly, I think their names were, from Champions Community Covenant Church. And they said, "We looking for some families to adopt." They had shelter and could help us get housing, get straight with our life. We took them up on the deal, and they brought us to the shelter.

When I was heading over there, my wife got in touch with me. She was at a friend's house and she text messaged me on the cell phone. I found out about my mother-in-law a couple days later. She got transferred to Arkansas. She was okay, but she had a lot of dehydration. She actually had a nervous breakdown.

Ten days later the band played in Memphis, Tennessee. Phil [Frazier, the sousaphone player] had been calling me the whole time. Phil is like brothers. I called him up right after the storm, and he came over and we hugged and all that, and Stafford Agee, too. They came over with their jokes and stuff and really helped me out, 'cause I was really down. Even that first day, I'd seen a lot of destruction. I had a little bit of shirt on, and I hate my shirts to be small. I wear very big shirts. They was ribbing me about the shirt, saying they can see my heart beating in it.

We're closer to each other than we are to our wives. The only thing we don't do is have sex with each other. We've been around each other our whole life, watched everybody grow up, watched each other's talent bloom. So ten days, that was a long time for us.

We played like shit that night. We sounded bad 'cause everybody was on new instruments. The feeling was there, but the playing wasn't there like we wanted. We try to put on the best show every time we hit.


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