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Family's ordeal illustrates woes

Louisiana flooding has separated families, left many missing.
Louisiana flooding has separated families, left many missing.
John Hart, Deseret Morning News

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Long after the last of the rain fell and the blasts of wind stilled, Hurricane Katrina continues to buffet lives in a drama that will not end. Among the thousands displaced, dramatic accounts of their survival continue to bob to the surface — like the story of Eddie Mixon and his wife, Karen.

The Mixons lived in Chalmette, La., about 15 miles southeast of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. They were with shared a home with her mother, a petite woman fond of her dogs and good at sticking to her own ways. As Katrina approached, the family stayed with her.

They took the extended family to the Chalmette Ward meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There, they weathered the fierce winds — but then the levee broke and water began to rush in. The group clambered upstairs to the mechanical room, but the water continued to rise. Mixon used a 2-by-4 to break a ventilator shaft and got them all to the roof, including Grandma. One of the ward members who was with them, Julie Attaway, was particularly frightened of water and could not maneuver to the roof.

They waited on the roof for an hour or two before a policeman or firefighter came by, distributing water from a boat. He didn't have room for them all, but he gave Mixon a ride to a 25-foot boat. That craft was hooked to a trailer, ready to be pulled away, but the owner had evidently drowned.

Mixon, a fisherman, used the boat to transport his group of eight family members to the old, abandoned Arabi School. It was dry there, and they felt they could be safe — shooting by looters had already started. Attaway, however, refused to leave the meetinghouse.

With his family safe, Mixon began to rescue others from roofs. Police had opened stores for food and water, so he transported supplies — water, soft drinks, canned food, even dog food.

"I would get them off the roof, give them supplies, bring them to the Chalmette slip," he said. "I dropped a few off at Chalmette High School — wherever there was a shelter near where I was."

He estimated he brought in about 30 people. He also took supplies to Julie Attaway.

"I had to make sure we had water, food and canned goods," he said.

Among those he rescued were two elderly people who were near death. When a military boat stopped, its occupants declined to take them in the dire emergency. So, Mixon and his wife, son Christopher Roberts and brother John Ryan held the boat until the old people were brought down and put into it. The military ended up taking the pair out by helicopter.

Even at that time — last Wednesday, Aug. 31 — "There were bodies floating in the street, snakes and raccoons swimming. People on the balconies were yelling for help," Mixon said. "Julie was scared."

"We did hear a lot of gunfire. I had two pistols (that his friend brought), and I was very worried about our problem. I slept with a gun on the muddy floor at the door, and another guy slept at the other door with a gun."

At the Arabi School on Wednesday, Mixon began pushing open windows for ventilation. One wood-framed window broke in half, and the glass sliced his arm, severing tendons and an artery in his left arm. When a military truck sounded in the distance, Karen Mixon ran to it and waved it down. The men took Edward but didn't take anyone else in the life-threatening situation. He was bleeding badly as he was taken by a helicopter to three evacuation centers. One after another rejected him because of the severity of his wound.

Eventually, Mixon was taken to LSU Medical Center. Two surgeons about to leave stopped in their tracks and did emergency surgery. Afterward, he came to the Baton Rouge LDS stake center, a shelter, with his arm full of 27 staples and having the look of being wired together by a farmer with pliers.

In pain and exhausted, Mixon was beside himself with worry. He worried about Grandma and about his 6-year-old daughter. He worried about Grandma's medical situation. And that he had left them with a gun they didn't know how to use. He worried that his wife had used the gun, or hadn't used the gun.

As time passed without resolution and no word came on their rescue, a decision was made to retrieve them by helicopter. Others yielded their use of the machine because of the urgent nature of the rescue.

The helicopter pilot, grouchy from long days of flying, warned Mixon and this reporter that if we got into wet conditions at the pickup site, we would spend the night in St. Bernard.

"It is so toxic I don't want to endanger my family and crew," he said.

He knew about danger. He carried a pistol in a well-worn holster at his back.

"We're packin'," said a crew member.

A 12-gauge shotgun lay on the desk next to the telephone directory.

"I don't know what I am going to find," said Mixon. "I might find them all well, or I might find their bodies, or they might be gone. I don't know what I will find."

"I hear you," said a crew member.

"I just don't know," said Mixon, his voice growing husky.

A contingency plan was in place in case of moisture. Any mud and Mixon would stay and meet the chopper the following day with his family on the levee, high and all dry.

As the Huey pounded its way across the watery city, the pilot observed, "Every time I look real hard, I see a body."

Later he said, "There's going to be political firefight after this is over. And there should be."

Then, "There it is," Mixon said after about 45 minutes. The Huey dropped onto the abandoned school yard.

Mixon jumped out and sprinted across the dry ground. I ran a different direction. An eerie silence smothered the debris-littered area. Mixon said earlier he could smell the stench of bodies in the air. Nothing alive remained.

"They're gone," said Mixon. "They've packed up and gone."

He was grateful.

We reboarded. I think the crew was covering us with their weapons. The pilot flew his craft to a nearby military post and landed on the levee. Its watchmen pulled their weapons warily and then gestured toward an old sugar factory where refugees had been taken. Katrina had accented the factory's age by blowing out windows and leaving debris.

Curiously, a white goose strutted nearby. Maybe it was mating season and it found the helicopter interesting. It seemed to want attention.

At the factory, police told a badly out-of-breath Mixon that 3,000 refugees from St. Bernard had been gathered and then bused on Sunday to the now-open New Orleans airport and flown away. He had no logs, no records.

"That's St. Bernard for you," said Mixon.

He was angry now. Angry and relieved.

It was now too dark to look for the Chalmette meetinghouse.

On the return trip in darkness, candles of flame could be seen far below: Houses had ignited when waves shifted a structure and tore its gas lines free.

As the Huey passed over the airport, an emergency signal suddenly screamed over the helicopter's radio. Beneath, we learned, an airplane had crashed at the end of the runway. The pilot radioed airport control about the signal and searchers were sent. We were the only ones there to hear it. Perhaps the trip had helped someone.

The Huey droned on. Its fuel gauge dropped lower and lower. It uses 15 pounds of fuel a minute, the pilot said.

"I hope Grandma isn't in jail," said Mixon. "She won't let anyone take those dogs from her."

Mixon learned the following day that Grandma had been taken immediately to a hospital, and the others were in a shelter in Arkansas. Relatives from Texas drove in immediately to collect the family and put them back together.

At this writing, Julie Attaway remains among the missing.