What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A reunion of heroic proportions: Rescue and Search

Chris Granger / Times-Picayune
Johnny Jackson, right, holds onto the shirt that he remembers David Martin, left, wearing when he rescued him by boat following Hurricane Katrina.

By Bruce Nolan
November 27, 2007

David Martin was standing outside the agreed-upon rendezvous point, the headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, when the approaching Johnny Jackson caught his eye. In Tuesday's dying light they regarded each other as the distance closed, different in many ways -- Martin, the white, weather-beaten, small-town outdoorsman, and Jackson, the black, city-bred former politician and gregarious bon vivant.

"There he is," called Jackson, extending his arms.

The two embraced briefly, a little awkwardly. A guy greeting.

They hardly knew each other. They had not seen each other since the terrible morning of Aug. 31, 2005, when Martin, a stranger, nosed his aluminum flatboat below a second-story window and plucked Jackson, his 80-year-old mother and two others out of their house in the Upper 9th Ward and ferried them to safety.

They were together probably less than an hour that day. They did not exchange names and did not expect to meet again, until Jackson arranged the meeting Tuesday to thank the stranger who appeared out of the dark that day two years ago. 

'Y'all need a ride out?'
The night of their first encounter, thousands of New Orleanians for miles around Jackson's Press Park neighborhood were still marooned on roofs or trapped in attics or upper floors two days after the passage of Hurricane Katrina.

The military was mobilizing. And so were hundreds of private citizens like Martin, fishers and hunters with boats who were running their own ad hoc rescues all over the flood zone, pulling people out of houses, dropping them at gathering points on interstate ramps, then turning back for more.

Early on Aug. 31 Martin and a fellow member of the Cajun Redfish Club, Shannon Ordoyne, found Jackson; his elderly mother, Josephine; a disabled cousin, Kevin; and a nephew.

In the predawn darkness they played a spotlight into the window over the blacked-out second floor, Jackson remembered. "Ya'll need a ride out?" they said.

The Jacksons did. They pulled themselves into Martin's 16-foot boat and sat, soaked, as Martin and Ordoyne made for railroad tracks on high ground near Interstate 10.

"I remember we just talked about how bad it was," Jackson said Tuesday. They did not exchange names. But Jackson never forgot a distinctive shirt his anonymous rescuer was wearing.

Even in the dark he could tell it was a knit polo shirt with a fish on the breast. He thought he remembered the words "redfish" and "club." 

Landing in Dallas

Martin and Ordoyne dropped the Jacksons near Louisa Street and the interstate, then turned back to gather more people.

Over the next three harrowing days, Jackson, a former state legislator and City Council member, shepherded his family to the chaos of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, then out of the city to shelter and food in Westwego.

A week later, they were in Dallas. There they were adopted by two Texas families, Alan and Kathy Box and Charlie and Cathy Fisher, who enveloped the Jacksons in extraordinary care and helped them settle in the Dallas area.

Two years later The Times-Picayune featured the Jacksons' story, from the anonymous rescuers in the boat to the Boxes and Fishers in Texas, in second-anniversary storm coverage that focused on how strangers aided storm victims in the desperate time after Katrina.

In subsequent weeks the newspaper was able to identify Martin as a man who might have been Jackson's rescuer. The two were put in touch.

Jackson and Martin exchanged e-mails. Martin sent Jackson a picture of his shirt. Jackson mailed back from Dallas his deep gratitude, for himself and his family. 

Shirt sticks out

They arranged to meet for the first time Tuesday on the sidewalk in front of the Zulu clubhouse; Jackson is a member and float captain in Zulu's annual Mardi Gras parade.

"I want you to see something. I got the shirt," Martin said.

They walked to Martin's black pickup. He reached in and pulled out a hanger holding a polo shirt with a redfish on the breast and the words "Cajun Redfish Club."

"Yeah, that's it! I remember. That's it!" Jackson said.

Jackson escorted Martin inside and introduced him to a dozen club members sitting at the bar.

"What'll you have?" he asked Martin. 

Salvage turns to rescue

Over Jackson's Crown Royal and Martin's vodka and 7UP they traded recollections.

Martin, 51, the president of the fishing club, said he had towed his boat to New Orleans from his hometown of Montegut the day after the storm hoping to salvage equipment from a club travel trailer parked in Chalmette for a Labor Day club rodeo.

But that was clearly irrelevant, given the condition of the city. Instead, he said, he and Ordoyne launched their boat and motored into the flood zone, thick with people calling for help.

"We stayed out three days and two nights," he said.

Ferrying people from roofs to high ground, Martin said, they burned through 24 gallons of gas they brought, plus another eight they cadged from the National Guard.

They worked at night until they broke the last of their hand-held spotlights.

They borrowed drinking water. "I don't think we slept much," Martin said.

Martin said he didn't keep count, but he estimated he and Ordoyne collected perhaps 100 people.

After several days they returned to the Houma area, where Martin lives when he is not working on a huge Exxon construction project in Africa. He shuttles back and forth, a month on, a month off, he said.

Martin said his old fishing club is dead, its 80 members scattered. "What Katrina didn't wipe out, Rita finished off," he said.

"I got club members, I still don't know where they are. I mean, I don't even know if they're all alive or not. Is that the way it is with you, Johnny?" he asked. 

Proposal floated

In the clubhouse together, the men sipped their drinks and compared notes.

Jackson's mother and brother live in Slidell now. He and his wife live in Dallas and will remain there. But he frequently returns to New Orleans, where he hopes to repair his ruined house.

"I never looked to get anything out of it, you know?" said Martin. But to meet Jackson again and see him well, "this is a blessing."

And more than a blessing.

When Jackson, typically loud and social, introduced Martin to his friends at the Zulu bar, someone shouted over the noise, "Put that man on your float!"

"If he wants a ride," declared Jackson, "he's got it." 

Bruce Nolan can be reached at or (504) 826-3344 

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