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As floodwater rose at seminary, crew faced a mounting crisis

EDITORS’ NOTE: This is the first of three parts on the crew that stayed at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary as Hurricane Katrina approached and as the city’s flooding crisis began to unfold.

ATLANTA (BP)–When Hurricane Katrina passed, Chris Friedmann breathed a sigh of relief. As associate vice president for operations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Friedmann stayed to secure the campus after the storm.

Then floodwaters began to engulf New Orleans and the city descended into chaos.

In the midst of the unfolding tragedy, Friedmann and essential security and maintenance employees watched over the seminary. With much of the campus and surrounding Gentilly community under water, the seminary was completely cut off from the city.

“Tuesday morning I began to be concerned about our ability to stay,” Friedmann said. “I realized that we had become an island. Deep water prevented anyone from getting to us.”

The 24 people who remained on campus were in good hands with Friedmann. He spent four years of active duty in the Navy serving as an engineer aboard a destroyer with the Atlantic fleet. A certified police officer, Friedmann is commissioned by the New Orleans Police Department and the state of Louisiana.

Friedmann described the campus as faring well in the storm. He believed the city would be up and running soon. By Monday afternoon, Friedmann and Barry Busby, NOBTS campus police chief, had checked all the major buildings on the front block. The search was encouraging.

Leavell Chapel received significant roof damage, but the structure was intact. The steeple, a symbol of the school’s mission as a lighthouse to the city, was still standing. The hurricane stripped most of the shingles from one side of the chapel roof. Leaks damaged the carpet, pews, stage and the pipe organ.

In the library, Friedmann and Busby found one significant leak -– directly above the doctoral dissertation area in the reference room.

The other main buildings received little damage, but trees were down all over campus. Crews surveying other parts of the campus reported flooding at the back of campus, but no structural damage.

“We felt like we had gotten through this Category 4 or 5 and we had come out in a real winning situation,” Friedmann said. “We were real encouraged at this point.”

Friedmann called NOBTS President Chuck Kelley with the good news. After another quick call to his wife, Peggy, Friedmann’s campus recovery plans kicked into high gear. He moved the seminary’s command post to the cafeteria, including generators and food. After a meal together, Friedmann and Busby each returned to their own homes for the night.

Before Friedmann went to bed, he noticed water near his house slowly rising. He had no indication why; radio stations had not yet sounded any alarm. Friedmann tried to sleep. It was hot and still. The city was quiet except for the chirping of thousands of frogs.

At midnight, Friedmann, unable to sleep, checked the water again. Floodwater now touched the sill of his front door. He knew the worst was yet to come for his crew, so he called Busby with the news. Busby went downstairs in his townhouse to find that his home was flooding.

Friedmann and Busby moved into the president’s home on higher ground at the front of campus. To them, it was apparent that the flooding was not going to stop.

They noticed live fish and shrimp swimming in the water near the president’s home. Now the men had a good idea where the water was coming from — Lake Pontchartrain, approximately three miles north of campus.

Looting started near the campus as soon as the storm passed Monday afternoon. Community Grocery, across Press Drive from NOBTS, was hit first. Then looters moved through the stores in the Gentilly Woods shopping center.

“They were carrying out cartloads of stuff,” Friedmann said. “Some of it I can understand, food and water for the kids, no problem. But they were carrying out buggy loads of sneakers and hair supplies.”

Tuesday morning the water was higher and looting continued in the neighborhood. Looters broke into the Walgreen’s on Press Drive and moved down Gentilly Boulevard to a pawn shop directly across from the seminary’s front gate.

“The pawn shop was the tipping point for me,” he said. “The pawn shop was filled with weapons and they were carrying them out.”

Friedmann’s team shifted into survival mode. Campus police stood guard at the front of the seminary, flashing their emergency lights at anyone approaching campus. Others began moving a supply of food to an apartment complex near the back of campus with a front-end loader/backhoe and small fishing boats. If they needed to fall back to a more secure location at some point, Friedmann wanted to be ready.

“Every step of this process was ordained by God,” Friedmann said. “These were all God’s decisions, we just followed. I’ve never been through an experience where it was so obvious that He was leading us step by step.”

Tuesday ended on a down note. There was no police or military presence in Gentilly. Friedmann had seen one National Guard truck pass during the day, but the young soldiers did not stop. Everything had been looted around them and people had been approaching the seminary fence throughout the day -– none had gained access to the campus yet. Friedmann knew he had a crisis on his hands.

Wednesday morning, Friedmann heard two radio reports that caused him deeper concern. He heard that Kathleen Blanco, the Louisiana governor, had issued a mandatory evacuation order. He also learned that heavily armed gangs were virtually ruling the streets. These reports left Friedmann determined to evacuate.

The news on the radio was not all bad. Reporters said the city still had one escape route -– Interstate 10 was open to the Crescent City Connection (a prominent bridge near the Superdome). The bridge provides access to the West Bank area of New Orleans which escaped the floodwaters.

Friedmann noticed that the fish and shrimp that where swimming on campus the day before had died. Gasoline, oil, sewage and other contaminants filled the rising water –- yet another sign that the team needed to leave.

With gangs roaming the streets, a governor’s call to evacuate, water rising around him and water safety concerns, Friedmann knew he had to get his crew out of the city.

Early Wednesday morning, Friedmann gathered his senior staff (Chief Busby, David Dowdy, assistant director of grounds, and James Byrd, director of housing and janitorial services) for a planning meeting. The group was determined to move those who remained on campus to safety.

Friedmann’s group hatched a daring plan. They would drive out of the city in a convoy. Only one question remained in his mind, “How do we get past the deep water?”
Tomorrow: Part 2.