Saturday, July 10, 2010

Oblivion by Robert Dula

There are many things that can be said about American gondoliers. As a group they are athletic, passionate, fun-loving, and they love the outdoors.
Gondoliers have a strong connection with the ocean.
Travel-junkies abound in a gondola operation.
A lot of surfers and sailors can be found on gondolas.
Overall, gondoliers make a point to enjoy life to the fullest extent.

As a catch-all term, "interesting" seems to define just about everybody who rows a gondola, especially the gondoliers I know.

I could spend many posts trying to describe one such "interesting" gondolier - Robert Dula, but I'll try to keep this introduction brief.

Besides having a great talent for rowing,
beyond a deep love for gondolas,
and in addition to having a great love for this crazy job so many of us have,
Robert Dula has the most unique nickname of "Hurricane Bob".

Without a doubt, Dula has endured more hurricanes than any other gondolier in the world.
Every gondolier I've ever shared a drink with has known the rest of the story before I've even finished describing "Hurricane Bob".

Robert Dula is the stuff of legends.

Here's a firsthand account of his experience in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I've waited for just the right time to post it, and with the re-opening of Nola Gondola iminent, I can't think of a better time to post it.

OBLIVION by Robert Dula

It was such a cruel flashback;
but, it was really happening.

In less than a years time, I found myself being sucked back through oblivion, through the obligatory calm, through the relief of dodging the bullet, just to discover the apocalypse was just starting!

It was that Big-a, mean-a, Bitcha Katrina!

I watched from my Allard St. apt., as the winds increased to a howling shrill, as tree limbs were stripped and tossed down the street, roofs flew off, and chimneys tumbled down.

Prior to the onset of the madness, I had, just as I had done for Hurricane Ivan in Pensacola, a year before, sunk my authentic Venetian gondola. This time in City Park, New Orleans, where I had established, NOLA Gondola, my romantic tour operation through the lagoons of this majestic old park.

Bella Mae (named for my Mom) gurgled and creaked, as she slipped beneath the surface of the parks murky waters, loaded with cement blocks, secured to a dock, and left, like an abandoned child, to ride out the perfect storm, alone, (not even George Clooney) and hopefully secure from what was yet to come.

She had sat like this before, in Pensacola's Bayou Chico, as the gulf waters surged over the city. Mae was spared; but, my home in Milton, on Garcon Point, was not as fortunate. It was taken to many different places. Part of it was strewn about the neighborhood, part of it was floating in the canal, a few odd possessions were salvaged; most was claimed by Ivan's fury. Palafox Pier, in Downtown P'cola, where I operated Gondola di Pensacola, was also claimed, it's luxury yachts smashed and stacked upon each other, like so many toothpicks scattered by God's schizophrenic rage against mankind.

Back to "The Big, Not so Easy Now".
Katrina came charging through, like the raging bulls of Pamplona. She passed, as hurricanes do. I went outside to survey the damage, bad, but not so bad... I thought.

I took out my chain-saw and started clearing the street of tree remains. I had cleared a pretty good path from one end of the block to the other, as sunset approached. Exhausted from a sleepless night, and the manual labor, I turned in about 7 o'clock p.m., it was August 29th. At 3 o'clock a.m., I awoke to bubbling sounds, put my feet to the floor, and ankle deep water.... rising water. Walking outside, I discovered a street turned flowing stream. Perplexed, I turned on my radio, battery powered, and rechargeable; but, the electricity was off. (Fortunately, I had a self-contained battery charger that I used on the gondola to power the stereo and lights.) News was sketchy. WWL was the only station broadcasting. Evidently, the 17th ave. levee had succumb to the rising waters of Lake Ponchatrain, allowing "the bowl" to begin filling. By 6 o'clock a.m., on August 30th, the stream in the street was becoming a river, and with two foot of water in my apt, I could no longer sit in my lazy-boy! Bed was floating, fridge had fallen over, and was floating. Shoes, foot stools, food, boat oars.... all floating.

Oblivion had arrived,
not caring about life property or anything else, it's ugly head, seething through the streets of the city, like a twisting serpent, striking again and again! By 8 o'clock, three foot of water in the streets. Moving some of my few possessions to the second story balcony, I noticed large plumes of smoke rising in different areas of Orleans Parish, helicopters were beginning to fill the skies, and the water was still rising! I had carried many items to the balcony, including three boxes of MREs left over from Ivan, two kerosene lanterns, an air mattress, my radio, bottled water, two, six gallon jerry cans of water, of course, a towel, ("Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy") and a few other things I could carry.

Time for some exploring. A week before, I purchased a "Hobie" kayak, sit on top, from Compass Rose, in Covington. Perfect for paddling flooded streets. I went up Allard, to Dumaine St. and took a left. It looked like Venice! Approaching Carrolton, and turning left, I saw other people, some in Jon boats, some in canoes, some wading, and others up on their porches. going up N. Carrolton, I first came to the firehouse, surrounded by water, and firemen standing inside. One walked, waded out to me asked if I could take him up Bayou St. John, to his house, so he could retrieve his small boat. I said sure, thinking of the irony of me saving the firemen! My kayak was not really made for two people; however, I managed and we made it to his home on Bell St., dodging downed power lines, trees, and assorted debris. Journeying back, some folk, sitting on porches asked what we knew. "Not much", just what we were hearing on WWL. Water was spilling into the city from several levee breaches, help was coming. "Not much". Getting back to my apt, I met Randy and Eileen Duke. They were in the upstairs apt. house across the street from my place, with their two dogs, August, a poodle looking mix, medium sized mutt, and Mabel, an American Bull Dog. Randy asked if I could take him to get his kayak, and some other things from his home that was getting a new floor put down, which is why they were staying in the apt. I took him, following the same route as before. We got to his house, and luckily, the water had not reached inside. The new floor was spared. Randy grabbed his kayak, and we returned to Allard St. I took a break, tired from paddling, and went to my balcony camp.

I heard a cat meowing from inside the upstairs neighbors apt. It was Sam, and his owner, Margaret, was a nurse at Ochners Hospital. Knowing she was stuck there, I attempted to remove the window pane, so I could get to him. I almost had it, when the cheap glass broke. Well, I got in. Sam was glad to see me, his food bowl nearly empty, and for me, a new, improved campsite. Margaret had some goodies for munching on and some more bottled water. I patched the window, so Sam would not run off, and let myself out the door. Randy came over and helped me get my television, not harmed, upstairs. The brand new matching Maytags were not as lucky.

It was getting near sunset of the second day in oblivion, La. I munched on some apples and heated up some beef stew; sure better than the old c-rations of my Air Force days! I used Margaret's shower stall, to take a bottled water bath. It was sufficient. I had my Nextel cell phone; it was charged, but no signal. I tried the walky-talky feature, and surprisingly got through to my business partner and good friend in Boston, Joseph Gibbons. Joe, and his wife Camille, have a gondola concession in Boston, where they operate two Venetian gondolas on the Charles River. ( Joe told me to get out, if I could. He and the rest of the world were seeing what I was living. New Orleans was cut off, people were dying, and things did not look good for the home team. I explained to Joe that we're not in dire straits yet; however, he still stressed the point that we should get out, if we could. OK, food for thought; I had a bicycle. Nope! Can't ride it through the water. Waters too deep to drive car, if I had a car. Ivan took my truck, my motor-home, my motorboat; so, unless I sprouted wings.... I was satisfied that things were cool and went to sleep, or tried.

The coolness of the air, right after the storm, was replaced by the warm mugginess of a typical Louisiana Summer, and the drone of helicopters in the background was annoying. Mosquitos, more annoying, buzzed my ears, and feasted on my blood. Hmm.... ways out. In the morning of the third day, Wednesday, the 31st of August, I was telling Randy and Eileen that I spoke with Joseph. They had not been able to contact any of their loved ones, to let them know they were alright. I tried to reach Joe. Nothing. But, I took Randy and Eileen's phone numbers of the people they wanted to contact, so I could relay the info to Joe, when and if I was able to get through again. I also had a new mission. If Randy and Eileen could not get through to their loved ones, then the other stranded people around the neighborhood were probably having the same problem. I get in the yak, and go around the neighborhood, collecting numbers and meeting my neighbors. It was a good feeling and gave me something to do. I met Tom and his wife Ulla. Tom was a New Orleans businessman with investments in many area businesses. His wife was from Germany. They knew me as the gondola guy from the park. Ulla gave me a kinda cool glass of orange juice. I took all their numbers, including her brothers in Germany. There was Walter, who lived by himself, next to the firehouse, which was abandoned by the firemen. Walter had a lady friend in Colorado, that he wanted me to contact. There was Tim Lafranca and the people across the street from him, the Shrenks. I don't remember all the names, and later lost most the info. However, I was able to reestablish contact with Joe, and he was able to contact the peoples loved ones! Lots of relieved folk. I later met an older couple that had a mess of cats and were running low on cat food and water. No problem. Had plenty and even gave them some MREs for themselves. I found an orange tree covered with nearly ripe, juicy oranges. Loaded them in the kayak and passed them out.

Stayed away from areas where people were looting, but saw a lot going on. On day four, some gung-ho G.I. Jerk comes around in uniform, packing a 45, telling us that people were going crazy and killing people and looting and burning. We should go up to the Esplanade St. bridge, and wave at helicopters. "What about the dogs", Eileen asked. "Might as well kill them, cause that's what the National guard is going to do, when they arrived and forced people out." He said they were on the way. I did not trust this Major, or that's what the insignia on his lapels indicated. He was all by himself. No radio or subordinates to help. Guess that's what they mean.... An Army of one! Well, Randy and Eileen did not know what to do. Do they go to the bridge and leave the dogs? Do we take Eileen to the bridge and go back for a mercy killing? Do we tell G.I. Joe he's not in charge. I stressed that we had heard no gunshots, and the plumes of smoke were pretty far away, and that army boys story was kinda extreme.

It was now Friday the 2nd of September.

I paddled up to the bridge and there was one old lady there by herself. Her son had gone back to the house to get some things. From another direction of exposed land, a pack of dogs approached, showing signs of wanting the old lady for a snack. Not on my watch. I jumped from the kayak, swinging my paddle like a wild man and screaming at the dogs, as I ran towards them. They ran like frightened sissies, and left the scene. There were plenty of ducks in the park, for them to hunt. The old lady turned out to be Mrs. Nuggent, and her son Phil ran the Electric car concession in the park. They were thankful I arrived, but seemed to think they should stay on the bridge, and some others were starting to arrive there as well. But, the helicopters were not coming there. They were close, and we could see some people being lifted in the distance, but not here.

I went back and told Randy and Eileen what was going on, and they had somewhat reluctantly decided they should try and get out, and execute the dogs. First, we took Eileen to the bridge. She on the back of my kayak and Randy in his, carrying a couple bags of essentials. About 15 to 20 or so people were now on the bridge, including the Shrenks and Tim Lafranca. Randy and I were preparing to go back, when Eileen broke down. She was crying hysterically about the dogs, insisting that it was wrong to kill them, and she was right. I still, other than a funky odor to the air, saw no reason to make any rash decision. Hell, the helicopters showed no inclination to start picking folk up. G.I. Jerk was standing around with his arms folded, looking annoyed. Randy, Eileen and I went back. The dogs were happy. Wonder if they knew how close they came to doggy heaven, that day. I went back over to my place and had a bottle of wine.

So now it is Saturday the 3rd of September. Still no helicopters picking people up. Still no National Guard troops rolling in to take people out. I went back to my place and sat around, ate some MREs and brought some over to Randy and Eileen. I had talked to Joe again, a day or two before. He had tried to get a private helicopter company to pick up myself, the Dukes and the dogs, but that was not going to happen. It was a hot day and that evening I sat sweating and swatting mosquitos.

Around 3 o'clock on the morning of the 4th, there was a helicopter closer than ever; so I grabbed my bicycle flashlight and set it on strobe. The chopper crew saw it, turned and started hovering over my place. Too many trees, and no way to the roof. But, Randy and Eileen had roof access through the attic. I franticly shoved the kayak back into my still flooded apt. grabbed my little backpack and waded across the street, and upstairs, where Randy and Eileen were trying to get the dogs up the ladder to the attic. My help would be required. Mabel, the Bull Dog, weighed about 90 pounds and did not really enjoy me grabbing her, tossing her over me, like a sheep and toting her up the ladder. I passed her off to Randy in the attic, and went back for August. He was easier. All this time, the roar of the helicopter was overpowering. Eileen went up the ladder after we got Ague up in the attic, followed by me. She was the first to go up. The rescue guy from the chopper was on the roof and he harnessed Eileen and then hoisted her up, next was me. The wind was blowing and debris was flying all over, as I was hoisted up. I was pulled inside the chopper and sat next to Eileen, who was against the closed door side. She was freaking out! But glad. Randy, the dogs and the rescue guy were still on the roof, rigging up the dogs. Mabel came up, wrapped in a sheet. Next was August, and finally Randy and the rescue guy. They gave us bottled water, and off we flew to the New Orleans Airport.

It was almost daybreak when we arrived to a very littered airport. We thanked the rescue guys and Chris Usher, a photographer for Time, who happened to be on the helicopter, taking pictures of our rescue. ( See the September 19th issue.... page 50, or, "One of Us", pg.3) We were taken inside the terminal and placed in a line to go through search procedures. They took a 22 pistol I had forgotten in my backpack, but failed to notice a road-flare. After going through the detectors, with my flare, we stood in another line. It was not moving so I took out my swiss army knife, (Nope; they did not take it either.) and cut up an apple, and shared it with Randy, Eileen, and a frail looking black man carrying a pit-bull puppy.

Shortly afterwards, an announcement was made that a single person was needed to fill a flight. That was me. Rather quickly, I said my goodbyes to Randy, Eileen and the dogs and before I knew it, was boarding a Frontier jet bound for Denver. Actually, I had no idea where I was going until I was actually boarded. A few hours later we arrived at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, and taken by bus to the dorm style barracks at Lowry Air Force Base. After processing, I was assigned a room and found all the towels and soap and hot shower that felt like heaven! Volunteers had come in two days and prepared the shut down barracks for our arrival. The people of Denver really rolled out the red carpet. Red Cross and Salvation Army had canteens with hot meals and desserts and soda pops! Tents with donated items of everything a person needs. Buses were brought in to shuttle people to FEMA processing and wally world or wherever you needed to go. Church people ran around doing what church people do. The view of the Rocky Mountains was breathtaking, and the climate was mild and no humidity!


gondolaguy said...

Thanks Greg! Awsome intro! Opening weekend was a bit slow, cause of funky weather... but that's New Orleans for you. Pictures coming.

Tamás said...

What about the BP oil slick, is it a problem in New Orleans?

gondolaguy said...

The worst of the spill is still south of New Orleans.