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With front-end loader pushing floodwater, crew began escape

EDITORS’ NOTE: This is the second 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)–Twenty-four people remained on the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary after city levees broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. With water rising, Chris Friedmann, associate vice president of operations at the seminary, knew he had to evacuate campus. But how would they get through the deep water?

Friedmann called his senior staff to the cafeteria that had served as the command post since flooding began. Barry Busby, chief of campus police, James Byrd, director of housing and janitorial services, David Dowdy, associate director of grounds, and Friedmann worked to find a way out of the city.

Earlier in the day, the men heard that an escape route remained open. The problem for the seminary crew: making it to Interstate 10. Even getting off the campus would pose significant challenges.

The vehicles the group needed to use for their escape were parked at the seminary cafeteria on Providence Place. When Hurricane Katrina tore through campus, large trees fell over Providence Place, completely blocking the seminary gate. On the other side of campus, the Seminary Place gate also was blocked by large trees.

Fortunately, the Hardin Student Center gate was not blocked. However, two deep water areas separated the convoy of eight vehicles from the gate.

David Dowdy spoke up with an incredible idea for escape. He believed they could push water aside with the front-end loader and drive the vehicles through. The idea, which sounds more like an action movie plot than a viable plan, called for moving just enough water to keep the cars from stalling. They believed each vehicle that passed through would keep the water pushed away for the next as long as they stayed bumper-to-bumper behind the loader.

The senior staff agreed on the escape plan, but Friedmann wanted a trial run. He sent Chris Joyner, the campus mechanic, and Dowdy out on the front-end loader to test the idea.

“They came back to me and said, ‘We can make it,” Friedmann recounted. “I said, ‘Let’s go!’”

The group immediately began moving vehicles from the cafeteria to the Hardin Student Center parking lot, where they would regroup and re-supply before leaving campus. To get to the student center, the plan of pushing water aside would be put to an additional test. Three feet of water covered their only route — DeMent Street.

Joyner led the group on the front-end loader to DeMent Street at 15 miles per hour. The convoy included two seminary vans, two campus police trucks and four private vehicles. The vehicles carried 24 precious lives.

“Chris [Joyner] pushed a foot of water out of the way,” Friedmann said. “The rest of us, following behind him bumper-to-bumper, kept the channel low.”

The vehicles navigated DeMent Street and were making their way down Seminary Place when they encountered a serious problem. Friedmann, following directly behind Joyner, struck a sunken boat the crew had used to survey campus.

Caught between a large pecan tree and a hedge near the seminary library, the truck would not move. A brief moment of defeat began to set in as the remaining seven vehicles waited in deep water behind Friedmann.

Joyner and Steve Eichelberger, director of communications and Providence Foundation operations, noticed the problem. Their quick thinking saved the day.

Joyner used the back-hoe arm to knock the boat loose. Eichelberger jumped in the water and attached a tow rope to the boat. The toxic water burned his legs. Using the rope and his Jeep, Eichelberger pulled the boat out of the convoy’s way. The group quickly pushed through another deep water area to their staging area in the student center.

Friedmann knew gasoline would be a major concern during their trek to safety. Because the seminary’s gasoline tank had been compromised by rising water, the team siphoned fuel from the dry vehicles on campus. They were able to fill most of the vehicles and carried an additional 50 gallons of fuel in containers tied to the back of Eichelberger’s Jeep.

Four major obstacles remained -– three deep water spots and growing unrest downtown would challenge their escape. Louisiana State Wildlife and Fishery agents had warned the seminary crew about problems near the Superdome. The agents shared reports about carjackings on Interstate 10.

“I was determined to protect every life that I could and get us out of there,” Friedmann said.

For an hour, the crew made ready for departure in the student center parking lot. At 1 p.m. Aug. 31, the convoy lined up to leave. Friedmann agonized over leaving, fearing that the campus would be looted. But it was simply unsafe for his team to stay.

“We all pulled up to the gate at the Hardin Student Center, campus police opened it up and we drove onto the median on Gentilly Boulevard,” Friedmann recounted.

The convoy waited on the median as campus police closed and locked the gate. With campus police trucks in front and in back, they drove east on Gentilly Boulevard/Chef Highway for several blocks.

The caravan turned right on water-covered Louisa Street. Joyner pushed the water aside and all the vehicles made it through. They turned into the McDonald’s parking lot built high above Louisa.

Leaving the McDonald’s parking lot was tricky. A very low area separated the convoy from the I-10 ramp. As each car passed through, it pushed just enough water aside for the next.

“That was the worst one we had been through that day,” Friedmann said. “We just got in there and blasted through it. We made it through OK.”

Halfway up the I-10 ramp they faced their last water hazard -– a dip filled with water. They made it through and began looking for an opportunity to ditch the front-end loader and get Joyner into a vehicle.

“I saw a spot with no people and I yelled on the phone, ‘Now, now, now,’” Friedmann said. “He [Joyner] pulled over to the median, got the backhoe out of the way and jumped in my vehicle. We headed downtown.”

High above the ground on I-10, the seminary team got their first look at the flooded city. As they passed the I-10/I-610 split they saw groups of people standing on islands of isolated, broken interstate along I-610.

“There was water all around them,” Friedmann said. “The whole city was a lake at this point.”

Friedmann ordered everyone to roll up their windows and a turn off their air conditioners. The windows were up for protection, the air conditioners were off to conserve fuel and ease strain on the vehicles. With temperatures in the upper 90s, it would not be a pleasant ride.

“Downtown was the scariest thing for me,” Friedmann said. “I didn’t want to run over anybody, but I didn’t want to stop.

“We went through town with lights and sirens blaring,” he continued. “There were literally thousands of people. It was hard.”

The emotions were especially real for Courtney Eichelberger, a staff member with the seminary’s MissionLab program who has spent five years ministering to the poorest of the city’s poor. As they passed the hopeless crowds near the Superdome, she saw dozens of people she had ministered to in the past.

“The people in the housing developments of New Orleans had been my friends for five years,” Eichelberger said. “Seeing their faces on the bridges as I drove past, knowing that I could not help them, was devastating.”

“I have never felt as hopeless or helpless,” she continued. “I could only think that God’s grace is sufficient for me and for them. My burden is something only God can ease…. [O]nly through God can I complete the tasks that are before me so I may minister to my friends when they return home.”

The crowd leaned in as the vehicles passed the Superdome at 35 mph. Some yelled angrily at the seminary group, others cried for help. Friedmann and the others agonized as they passed by the helpless people. They wanted to help, but they could not stop. The situation was too dangerous and there was no room to spare.

With the Crescent City Connection and safety in sight, one of the vehicles developed a problem -– water caused the engine to fail. It was too dangerous to stop. Eichelberger pushed the vehicle across the Mississippi River bridge to safety. The passengers left the broken vehicle by the road and continued their escape.

Friedmann and his team found the West Bank of New Orleans dry and full of law enforcement personnel. They breathed a sigh of relief.

Initial plans called for the team to travel to Baton Rouge, but they decided to travel Interstate 55 to Jackson, Miss., instead. They had not heard that most of Mississippi had lost power during the storm.

“We made a last-minute change to go up [Interstate] 55,” Friedmann said. “We began to discover that all the communities had closed their exits. They just couldn’t take any more refugees.”

Friedmann knew they needed to get off the interstate to find gasoline and a place to stay.

“The Lord just put it in my mind to go to Ruston [La.],” he said. “All these decisions were God-led, every one of them. We’re here today because we followed God’s direction.”

One of the men in Friedmann’s vehicle finally got a cell phone signal on I-55. Friedmann immediately called NOBTS President Chuck Kelley with a report of the escape. Then he called his wife, Peggy.

“I was very emotional at this point, I could hardly speak,” Friedmann said. “The stress had been too much. It wasn’t anything with the storm or the flooding. It was the out-of-control, total chaos in the city.”

In Vidalia, La., the group found several gas stations open, but each line had 60 to 70 cars waiting. Friedmann knew they would run out of gas waiting. At the last station in town, a sheriff’s deputy was directing traffic. There were only six cars in each line.

“We pulled in and we all gassed up,” Friedman said. “When our last campus police truck was gassed up, the station ran out of gas — just another miracle.”

In Ruston, the weary travelers found a friendly face -– James Davison Jr., a former seminary trustee and foundation board member. Davison and Temple Baptist Church took care of the exhausted group. Some were housed at the church while others stayed in the homes of church members.

The next morning Friedmann called the team together one last time. They talked about their experience, then they split up to rejoin their families at various destinations.
Monday: Part 3.