Survivor stories: From the roof, she could see everything

Adele Bertucci, 53, has lived in New Orleans for the past 35 years. A longtime hospitality worker, she moved to the U.S. from Cuba when she was 11. On the night before Katrina hit, Bertucci, who is disabled by chronic health problems, took refuge in the Uptown home of a friend, Sidney Smith. She stayed for the next five days. Much of that time she was perched on the roof, flagging down passing boats to get emergency deliveries of bottled water and other provisions. In her time on the roof, Bertucci had a panoramic of her city as the fires burned and chaos erupted in the streets. Now staying in Florida, she hopes to return to New Orleans for a visit soon but is uncertain about her long term plans.

I was on the roof for four days. I went up on Tuesday, just for a few hours. But From Wednesday to Friday, I stayed on the roof from early morning--5:3030, 6--until the roaches and mosquitoes became overbearing. Maybe 11:30. Every aircraft I would see, I would wave a towel to get their attention.


I was able to flag down quite a few boats. They were in canoes and jet skis, anything that floated. Every boat that passed by was filled with people—people and dogs, people in wheelchairs. I could see fires across the river where my friends Frank and Laura live.

I could see fires around the Superdome. At one point, there was a ring of helicopters hovering over the prison, like a big donut. I could see everything. It was hard to respond that this was the U.S. At night, every time I turned on a flashlight, the helicopters were all over me with the floodlights. I guess they thought I was a looter.

On Friday, I started thinking the fires were getting too close for comfort. A guy came down from a chopper on a rope. I had to straddle him in this apparatus, and then both of us got lifted into the helicopter. It was very, very weird. I didn't get scared until we were half way up to the helicopter and I felt the line jerk, like we were going to fall. It was pretty nerve wracking. But I knew that was the only way to get out for me.

When they picked me up, they told me I was going straight to the hospital. Instead they dropped me off at the interstate for a few hours. From there, they took my to the airport. My blood pressure was way up, so they put me in the MASH unit which had maybe nine beds. Some people were sick four days before they even got seen or transferred. While I was there, they gave me medication and stabilized me.

The worst experience for me was being alone for maybe four days in the airport. That's something I'll never forget. There were bodies. There were people bleeding. There were people laying in their own waste. One after each other. It was just horrible. If you take Gone with the Wind, and the Nazi War and the Vietnam war, and visualize that in one place, that's how I would describe the airport. When you watch it on TV, it's like watching a Walt Disney versus an R rated movie. You only see what they want you to see. You can't smell it.

After they released me, it took me about nine hours of standing in line to get to the plane. I flew continental to Austin and went to a shelter. As soon as I got the shelter, they took me to the hospital, then back to the shelter. That night, I went to a hotel. A lady and gentleman I don't know--they didn't want me to know who they were--paid for my hotel room. A lady that works in the hospital got me a flight to Florida. So I had pieces of fortune here and there. Great love. Everybody's been wonderful.

My daughter and her husband and her grandchild ended up in Carolina. My mom is in Fort Lauderdale. My boyfriend is a fire fighter. He just headed back today, and he's going to give us a heads up after he finds out just how safe it is. I got word from a friend in Baton Rouge that they're going to start letting people back in Orleans Parish on Monday. As far as a long term plan, we're just taking it day by day.

Oh, and Sidney says to say, "Forget Iraq, rebuild New Orleans."



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