TRUE BLUE: Katrina and the cops: the other side of the storyYou’ve heard the rumors. They were printed in every newspaper and broadcast on every TV news program. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Police Department bugged out. They ran, leaving the city and its citizens to fend for themselves. Most reports said that at least one-third – some claimed as many as half – of the police officers in New Orleans just walked off the job in the wake of the storm. According to the rumors, in the hour of its greatest need, one of America’s greatest cities was abandoned by those sworn to protect it. Don’t bet on it. n Here’s what really happened.

In the days leading up to Aug. 29, New Orleans Police Sgt. Danny Scanlan kept up with Katrina’s approach on television. He watched as it transformed from a Category 1 lightweight that was supposed to hit the Florida Panhandle into a 175-mph, Category 5 monster that had taken direct aim at New Orleans. Long before Mayor Ray Nagin issued the city’s first-ever mandatory evacuation order, Scanlan knew the situation was going to get bad – really bad. That’s why he reported for work on the day before the storm’s expected landfall with something extra – an ax.
Scanlan had grown up hearing stories from his father about Hurricane Betsy. When Betsy slammed into New Orleans in 1965, it flooded the city and took dozens of lives. “I knew what was going to happen,” Scanlan says. “I knew there were going to be people in those attics” escaping rising flood waters. He also knew that once the flood came, the only way to get people out of their attics would be to cut them out.
As soon as the storm passed, Scanlan and a couple of other policemen launched a 19-foot fishing boat from an interstate ramp and started rescuing stranded survivors. “There were people everywhere,” Scanlan recalls. “On their rooftops, inside their houses in waist-deep water. We probably took a hundred people out.”
Sometime during the afternoon of Aug. 29, Scanlan spotted a man standing on a roof. As Scanlan steered the boat toward him, the man waved him away. He pointed to a nearby house. “Go get them first,” the man shouted.
Scanlan and the other officers looked in the direction the man was pointing. Something on top of the house moved; it drew their eyes toward an attic vent near the peak of the roof. A stick was poking up through the vent, a handkerchief tied to the tip. The stick waved back and forth. Someone was trapped inside the attic. Scanlan reached for his ax.
He climbed on top of the house and chopped a hole through the roof. Inside the attic Scanlan found a 25-year-old woman – a college student who’d smashed through the ceiling and pulled herself up into the attic to signal for help. Her mother, father and grandmother were trapped in the kitchen, standing on top of the breakfast table, trying to keep above the rising water.
After he loaded the young woman into the boat, Scanlan climbed back on top of the roof and crawled down into the attic. He lowered himself onto the kitchen table. The water stood nearly 6 feet deep inside the house.
With the grandmother clinging to his back, Scanlan swam toward the front of the house. He threaded his way through a maze of floating furniture and out the front door. After helping the grandmother into the boat, Scanlan swam back into the house and led the mother and father to safety.

Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann, assistant commander of the New Orleans Police Department SWAT team, rode the storm out at the New Orleans Arena across the street from the Superdome. He had an 18-foot fishing boat with him.
When the winds dropped to 30 or 40 mph, Scheuermann, his brother, Jefferson Parish Reserve Deputy Darryl Scheuermann, who’d also brought a boat, and a handful of NOPD SWAT officers climbed into a couple of trucks and pulled the two boats out into the swirling remnants of the storm.
Scheuermann’s police radio crackled with reports that several neighborhoods were already starting to flood. He and the other officers headed toward the Lower 9th Ward. Along the way, they used bolt cutters and chainsaws to hack their way through fallen trees and downed power lines.
When they reached the Lower 9th Ward, everything was underwater.
Scheuermann and his team launched their boats from a bridge over the Industrial Canal, and for the next 14 hours they plucked hundreds of stranded residents from the tops of houses and pulled them through holes they cut through roofs.
The next day, they rescued hundreds more.

TRUE BLUE: Katrina and the cops: the other side of the storyTHE DENTAL SCHOOL
When Katrina’s fury was at its fiercest, Capt. Robert Norton and several other police officers sought shelter inside LSU Dental School. As soon as he could, Norton stepped outside to try to assess the damage. He didn’t know what to expect.
“We knew the water was coming up, but I never realized how bad things were until we got out there, until we saw what was happening,” he says.
The wind had torn roofs from houses, had snapped telephone poles and had ripped 200-year-old oak trees from the ground. It had also pushed Lake Pontchartrain into the city and turned whole neighborhoods into lakes.
Before the storm, Norton, who commands the NOPD Marine Unit, had positioned the department’s tiny fleet of boats in various locations throughout the city. At the dental school, Norton and another officer climbed into one of the boats and headed out to search for survivors.
“When we got the boat out of the dental center, the first thing I saw was a guy on the roof of his car,” Norton recalls. “It was a shock how high the water was.”
The man had been standing on his car for several hours, trying to stay above the fast-rising flood.
Norton and his partner loaded the man into the boat and brought him to an interstate overpass. The two officers went back into the flooded neighborhoods again and again, ferrying boatloads of frightened residents to higher ground. They kept at it until their boat’s motor got so fouled with debris that it sputtered out.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, it carried with it a tidal wave of chaos and violence. In the aftermath of the hurricane, looters plundered stores in broad daylight. They posed for photographs and talked to reporters. Bands of thugs, armed with guns stolen from pawn shops and sporting-goods stores, roamed the streets. They robbed, raped and pillaged their way across the dry parts of the city. Police stations came under attack. Rescue helicopters were shot at. Relief trucks were hijacked. Buildings burned out of control. Hospitals ran out of fuel for their emergency generators. Patients died.
In another part of the city, a TV news crew shot video of a law-enforcement officer standing in front of a pile of rubble that had been a building only a few days before. “This is Armageddon,” the officer said.
But not everyone was surrendering to the chaos. One of those charged with restoring law and order and regaining control of the city was Capt. Jeff Winn, commander of the New Orleans Police Department SWAT team.
A few days after the storm, Winn’s team picked up an intelligence report about a group of armed men who had hijacked a water truck. They were reported to be on a Downtown interstate overpass, robbing people who approached the truck looking for water. There were also other, more disturbing allegations.
“We heard they were raping women,” Winn says. “We also got a report that one guy wouldn’t give it up, so they killed him and threw him off the interstate.”
A corpse that Winn found lying beneath an overpass seemed to corroborate the information about the murder. The SWAT team started checking out water trucks. Later, as SWAT officers stopped a suspicious Kentwood truck, Winn and Dwayne Scheuermann took up positions on an interstate ramp above the rest of the team.
From their elevated position, Winn and Scheuermann watched as SWAT officers approached the truck. A man jumped out. He had a gun in his hand. “We had wide-open shots at the guy,” Winn says. “The guy pointed the gun at the troops, and we opened up on him.”
Winn and Scheuermann have no doubt that they located the right truck and that they found the right person. After the shooting, reports of robberies on the interstate ceased. “We were having all kinds of trouble up there,” Scheuermann says. “After that, not a peep.”

Although Algiers escaped much of the flooding that followed in the wake of Katrina, it did not escape the surge of lawlessness and bloodshed.
Lt. Joe Meisch and three other 4th District officers jumped 16 looters inside the Algiers Wal-Mart. The officers ran out of handcuffs and had to use duct tape commandeered from the store to secure the culprits.
Just down the street, Officer Kevin Thomas and his partner encountered four armed looters at a gas station. In the ensuing gunfight, one of the looters shot Thomas in the head. His partner’s return fire wounded one of the gunmen. Thomas survived, and all four suspects were arrested. Fellow officers recovered four guns from the looters: three handguns and a pistol-grip shotgun.
The officers assigned to the 4th District survived for more than a week on food and water they scrounged from Wal-Mart. They set up a makeshift kitchen under a carport at the district station as well as a first-aid center inside a tiny office. They worked 24 hours a day for the first two weeks.
“The first week was the worst,” says Meisch, a former U.S. Marine sergeant. “This place was Hell on earth during that first week after the storm. The 4th District officers took gunfire every night … We’d return fire, then send a patrol out to see if we hit anything, like it was Vietnam.”

Approximately 80 percent of the New Orleans Police Department’s 1,600 officers lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. Many lost everything they owned. Two officers were so overcome by the devastation that they committed suicide.
To date, 57 New Orleans police officers have been fired for abandoning their posts or otherwise neglecting their duty. Eighty resigned and 11 retired. Only about a dozen officers are still under investigation.
In the end, 90 percent of New Orleans police officers did what they were supposed to do. Most did a lot more.
In October, Dr. Howard Osofsky, a professor of psychiatry at the LSU School of Medicine, told the Associated Press: “This is unprecedented in our country. There is no disaster that has had the amount of trauma for a department that this has, where so many police officers have lost homes, been separated from their families, had loved ones living in other places with no idea when they’ll return.”
Capt. Robert Norton, one of the commanders who coordinated the police department’s boat-rescue operations, has nothing but praise for the officers he worked with and those he saw in action. “You had police officers who didn’t know where their families were, who had no contact with their families for days, and they were still out there working … out there saving lives,” he says. “When you see these guys pulling people off rooftops and pulling them out of homes, it was just amazing. Some of the stuff that happened was just totally heroic.”