|By Billy Davis
On Lazardi Street in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, Tonie Davis was packing her family’s belongings as the TV news showed Hurricane Katrina whirling toward Louisiana.
The date was Sunday, August 28, and the monster storm was expected to rip across her city the next morning.
Davis’s plan was to head for the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Canal Street, where son Nickolas was an employee there in the laundry department.
The hotel management was taking in employees and their families, planning to evacuate them if necessary, and Tonie (pronounced Tanya) Davis had intentions to be among them.
"I’ve seen lots of hurricanes. On TV they’re always yellow in the weather reports," Davis, 38, recalled. "This one was red, and it stretched from the top of Louisiana to the Gulf."
Husband Jessie Davis, 37, was staying in the home, however, despite the pleas of his wife. In the coming hours, he would regret his decision as he fought floodwaters to survive.
"I told Jessie he was like Lott’s wife in the Bible, that he shouldn’t look back and should come with me," the wife said, shaking a finger at her husband last week at the Panola County Airport north of Batesville.
The New Orleans couple had arrived at the airport Friday morning, September 9, to reunite with two of their children, N’Dia (pronounced India), and Lucky.
N’Dia, 11, and Lucky, 7, were set to arrive at 10 a.m. on a Freedom Flight, a charity air transport, that was bringing the children from Ft. Worth, Texas.
The mother said Panola Countians Myra Simmons, Ron and Jan Hood, and Sylvia Hadinger had worked to arrange the free flight from Texas.
After the levees broke and the water poured into New Orleans, a hasty mass evacuation at the Ritz had put N’Dia and Lucky on a bus with older brother Nickolas, 19.
In the frantic evacuation, the father and mother became separated from their three children. The parents knew Nickolas was a responsible young man and would take care of his siblings, and they were able to communicate for a while with cell phones, but what they didn’t know was where their children were going or what was awaiting them when they arrived there.
Tonie and Jessie learned the whereabouts of their children on Wednesday, September 7, and two days later the children were heading east to a Mississippi county where their parents were starting over.
Before the parents were able to reunite with their children, however, Jessie had to reunite with his wife at the hotel on Canal Street.
Jessie Davis said he had eaten breakfast and was cleaning up the home when the floodwaters poured into the 9th Ward, swamping his neighborhood in waters over 12 feet high. It was Monday, August 29.
At the Davis home on Lazardi Street, the water arrived about 6 a.m. with a trickle. Jessie noticed wet carpeting and went to retrieve a towel. When he returned, the water had risen to his knees. In a minute’s time, he was chest deep and fleeing for his life.
The family dog was fleeing for its life, too. Jessie lost his grip on the dog as it fled under the home to hide, one of the first fatalities Jessie would witness in the coming hours.
Jessie hurried to a neighbor’s dry home, where friend Willie Davis (no relation) was cooking a neck bone. The friend had no idea about the rising waters.
"I said, ‘Willie, it’s flooding out here,’ and when he opened the front door the water goes in," Jessie recalled.
The two men fled to the attic where they expected to be safe. Jessie sat with his feet dangling from the opening, watching below as Willie’s belongings floated around the home.
Then Jessie noticed the water lapping at the soles of his shoes, then at his ankles.
Jessie and Willie began tearing apart the attic, knowing they would die there if they didn’t escape to the roof of Willie’s two-story home. Willie began ripping apart the attic vents on the side of the home, hoping to climb up to the roof, while Jessie tore a hole through the roof.
Then Willie spotted a boat floating toward them. Jessie climbed atop the roof, then stretched a leg into the boat, pulling it to him with a foot.
"I promise to you the boat was tied up. I saw it tied up," Jessie later recalled. "I believe God sent that boat to use just when we needed it."
Jessie watched from the roof as the floodwaters swamped his home, covering even the 18-wheeler he relied on for his income as a truck driver.
The waters were also taking all the "stuff" Jessie Davis had stayed behind to protect. The rush of water eventually swept the home downstream.
"I stayed home to protect all of my things, and they almost got me killed," the husband and father said.
After drifting away from Willie’s home, Jessie and Willie tied up the boat at Nickolas’s home on the next block, where they rescued neighbors who were trapped in their homes by water that lapped at their roofs.
Jessie witnessed as a neighbor put his girlfriend in the top of a tree, knowing there was room only for her.
"He would go down and come up, and after about the third time he didn’t come up again," Jessie said.
Jessie, Willie and their neighbors spent Monday night and most of Tuesday in the boat. They had nothing to eat and nothing to drink.
Louisiana wildlife officers discovered the stranded neighbors Tuesday and later dumped Jessie, Willie and friend Aheem on dry land.
"They told us to walk to the Superdome, but I told Willie we weren’t going that way," Jessie said. "It just didn’t feel right. It sounded like trouble to me, so we went the other direction."
Now on dry land, the trio went into stores among a scene of wild looting.
While people around them grabbed electronics and high-price items, Jessie said he came out with dry clothes, Willie had picked out a pair of tennis shoes (he had been barefoot), and all three had grabbed up food, water and juice.
While chaos reigned around them, the three men cautiously ate and drank, hiding the water from view.
The trio continued walking, arriving on Canal Street and at the Ritz Hotel about 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Tonie Davis is both relieved to have her husband by her side and still angry at the lesson he learned.
"I said everything I could to get him to come with me, but he stayed behind for material things," the wife said Friday as she waited for her children at the airport.
Jessie said he learned his lesson, showing the scratches on his left arm he received in the midst of the two-day struggle in the floodwaters. Two of the scratches, he showed, form a cross.
"At night, when we were stuck in the boat, all you could do was look up at the pretty sky toward God," Jessie said. "We held hands a lot and prayed. A life jacket was good, but faith is what saved you."
N’Dia and Lucky arrived Friday in a Cessna 310, a compact two-prop plane.
The plane touched down at 10:20 a.m. after a non-stop flight.
N’Dia said her ears were popping after the trip, her first airplane ride.
The 11-year-old said she and her brothers stayed at the Renaissance Worthington Hotel in Ft. Worth, where many New Orleanians were staying.
Before the flood, Nickolas was set to marry his sweetheart, Ari Bedou, on September 2 in New Orleans. The couple instead exchanged vows in a brief ceremony at the Renaissance.
A Ft. Worth police chaplain had presided over the ceremony.
N’Dia brought a pair of wedding snapshots, and her mother studied the photos that showed her oldest child being married without her there.
"We had picked out the tuxedos and had everything ready," she said.
Tonie and Jessie Davis hugged the Freedom Flight pilots, and the wife and mother handed them thank-you cards for their work.
Then the family loaded into a van.
The next stop, Tonie said, was a trip to register N’Dia and Lucky for school in South Panola.