Clara Rita B.
Interviewer: Rebecca Solnit
San Francisco, CA
This interview was conducted at Ms Bartholemew's apartment in San Francisco's Fillmore District.
My name is Clara Rita Bartholemew, and I'm from Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana, and I'm sixty-one years old.
The storm got graded down to a category four, and on Saturday I cut my grass, did my hedge, cleaned my house and on Sunday everything was nice and sunny, Sunday evening the wind came up and the rain. My daughter was supposed to pass by and pick me up; we were going to go to Atlanta, Georgia. Around 7'o'clock the wind and the rain, very rainy, so I told her I would get out in the morning. I could get out in the morning; it had been downgraded to a category four. So I got to sleep, must have been about 2oclock Monday morning, woke up at six the lights and everything was off, and the house was shaking, there was rain, wind, tides, had to be about a hundred miles an hour. All I did, ran in the bathroom, finally, and I screamed, and I screamed, and I screamed. I would peep out every now and again to see things falling off the next house. The house was shaking, the wind was blowing, I was hollering Jesus, Jesus. It had to blow about two consecutive hours, or three. Finally it stopped and I had nerve enough to come out the closet. Then I walked through the house, oh my God, and when I finally looked out the window, the water was up at the stop sign. I'm hollering Jesus, What did I do wrong? So then I'm putting stuff in the suitcase, started putting some stuff in the suitcase, so all through the house there's about a foot of water, and this house is up high.....
AIT: Is this a house you own?
CRB: No, it's my sister's house; I moved in after she passed. Then finally the wind came back up again, it was bearing down on the house, and then I went back in the closet, and I heard this noise going RuparoopRuparoopRuparoop and I'm going Jesus what is it and it's going RuparoopRuparoopRuparoop, finally water come up to my legs, up to my side, I got out of the closet and pulled down the latch for the attic, got up in the attic and the wind had blown part of the roof off from the front of the house. And I'm screaming and hollering, I don't want to die, Jesus save me, please. What have I done? And by the time I closed my eyes, a big wave... Two big waves just met and covered me and when it sprayed, it just sprayed on top of all the other houses, because this house was up high, and finally it just sprayed it, and the wind kept blowing, the wind kept blowing. I could reach down and touch the water.
The water was pretty, it was nice and white. And I'm screaming and hollering, Please God, don't let me die, Please God, don't let me die. And then finally all different types of animals I've never seen before in my life came into the house, the windows was blowing. Finally I did have nerve enough to look down. Every ceiling in the house was gone, every window was gone, the back door was gone, just have the frame of the house, and all kinds of animals making all kind of noise, and I was running, because they was coming to my feet. It was horrible. So finally I'm thinking it's over, and it came and shook the back side of the house, and I'm praying to God, Lordy, Lordy, you know I can't swim and then finally for about four hours it beared down and so finally I'm standing on the stairs to the roof, and I'm tired, Lord, I'm tired, but if I fall asleep I'm going to drown. So here come the wind again and then finally it must have been about three o'clock and it stopped.
AIT: Could you see people on other roofs or were you all alone?
CRB: The water was still twenty feet, everybody said it was twenty feet. A white couple drowned in front of me, they were trying to get to the river. "C'mon you can make it guys!" And like a big wave a surge, just came and took them under. Oh the little girl hollered. She just screamed and screamed and screamed.
I'm sure they were some people from the island. I'm not that far from Rachel and Delacroix Island. Right near the Gulf. In the meantime the wind is still blowing you still got that fine misting rain. Then a body passed right in front of me. Then I'm looking around the attic to try to get something pull it up to me, and then there was a big old alligator following the body. Oh, I froze, I couldn't even move, and then after it calmed down the rain stopped I thought my neighbor was on the roof so I hollered and all of a sudden beautiful seagulls came and pelicans. He didn't have a shirt on so they was eating him up like he was dead meat and so he got a shotgun and started shooting at them. And then the wind started up again. Oh it blowed and blowed and blowed. I was getting tired.
Around about five in the afternoon, I was thinking wonder what time it is? And then I had enough nerve to get on the plank that was up in the attic and look down in the living room. There was a clock and the bible my sister had turned to Psalms 37, it was way up in the ceiling, not even touched by the water, and then we had more rain come, more wind. So I'm hanging on in the attic, getting tired, and just wanted to rest, and then all of a sudden a beautiful boat that looked like a yacht came not too far from me, and I said, "Oh Jesus, you walked on the water, I don't think I have faith enough to walk to that boat." It was a beautiful boat. I said God if you heard my prayers, give me an answer.
So finally I raised my hands up: I want you to forgive me for all my sins I've committed, and then my soul would be in peace. I was waiting for death. I was looking for something to tie myself to one of the beams; I thought if they started eating me it would be a long time before they started getting to my face.
Death: you see a bright light. I'm waiting for the bright light, I'm waiting to get cold, you know how they describe death. So I said Jesus if you're heard me, if I've been a servant to you if you're going to rescue me, please give me a sign.
And all of a sudden there came this squirrel. He was just playing around, and then he leaves, and I said No, don't leave, and he was there a whole hour playing in the back of the house. And I said you can have it when I leave. And then finally you just go up.
AIT: And the boat went by without picking you up?
CRB: No the boat was empty. It was a gorgeous boat. There was no one in it, it just went by. I think it was a sign from God that, you know, I am going to send help. Or that boat was there, you walk on water and go get it.
I was not moving. All that water I was surrounded by, I thought my neighbors' trailors looked like little trains in the water, some were twisted. I saw roofs falling off houses, I saw bodies go by in the water, I saw coffins, dead bodies on top of dead bodies, animals, I saw cows, horses, goats, all just floating on top of the water.
Finally I just said my last prayer, I said Lord you can do anything, you can pick me up and put me on dry land, I want to go to Hawaii,
Lord, you brought me this far, don't let me drown. I was crying, screaming and hollering, and then finally I said Lord, please.....
Finally Junior [the neighbor on the roof] started hollering he had got a mirror and he would flicker it when someone was coming. Finally a truck came and started flashing its lights. It was like one of these army things [vehicles] and then it left. Oh God it was horrible.
Finally he kept flicking the mirror on top of the water and I realized someone was coming by and I started yelling I'm Clarita, I'm in the attic, I'm alive, I'm Clarita, I'm in the attic.
(So my brother said in Atlanta [later], if you're yelling then you're alive. I said shut up....).At that stage I don't know what I was. I could hear a boat. So finally I heard the white girl say, I hear someone hollering, and he said no it's just the water going down. She said, no Turn the motor off. When he turned the motor off, you know what I did. I hollered I'm Clarita, I'm alive. When he came to the opening of the roof and he saw me, how did you live through that? "Nobody but Jesus, nobody but Jesus..."
And so this guy, his name was Alfred Hutchinson and he says, something kept getting me to come back this way. And I said it was Jesus. I was panicked, I was holding onto my roof, and he said you've got to let go. I said no, and then I realized that all the water is around me. I looked at my sister's dining area, I told you the house is up high, the china cabinet was loaded with water, all the furniture and the TV turned up sidedown. I looked at the bathroom it was black caked mud, all the clothing is in the water. Oh it was horrible.
So he said you know I'm going to come up and get you, I'm going to pick you up. He had his little boy with him, about nine years old, and I said tell him to turn around, so he could put me in the boat. and he put me in the boat and his wife gave me a pair of pants. [A neighbor in the boat said] "Clarita, Oh, I've seen so many alligators...". And then we had another neighbor, he was on the roof, and he said Clarita I aint seen anything in all my born days. And he told us he had been going from roof to roof. Each house you would get higher as the water come. I said Oh God. So finally we got rescued, but we have a cemetery in the place I live, a little place called Barrette Village, and all the coffins was up out of the tombs, and so we had to go through center of our parish and all you could see is people in trees, on top of rooftops, and all we could say is we'll come back, we'll come back for you. The guy rescued a hundred people that day.
AIT: Wow, did you find out anything about him?
CRB: He works for the Parish and God was just using him, he was the angel for that day. And so then finally we passed through some areas, the nursing home where all those patients died, it was covered with water, oh my God, and then we passed through all these little towns all covered with water. I can't believe this, oh, oh..... Dead bodies floating.....He said the parish officials told him don't rescue the dead bodies because they did't have any place to put them......
AIT: And there's so many live people?
CRB: Yes, who needed rescuing, and finally we come to the high school, St. Bernard High School, and I was shocked to see the Coast Guard. So I said Why didn't you all come. I said you had three hours to get to higher ground, and I was waiting f r the helicoptors or the sea planes. So I asked the guy, I'll never forget his face, why didn't you come and rescue us. He says, Well the water was too high. I said, If I were a man I would knock you to the ground. And I repeated it again. I said, If I was a man I would knock you flat down to the floor. And this guy in this little little boat came and rescued us, and he just looked at me. I said you all could have been rescuing people all this time, and a lot of people could've been saved. About two hundred people stayed behind, a lot of fishermen......
I slept on the stage of the school, on the floor, and Tuesday we were able to move around, they gave us a little food not that much. They didn't even warn people. And then around three o'clock they bombed the levee in New Orleans, we heard it, "Boom," and when the Coast Guard heard it they yelled they did it they did it and ran downstairs. This is how New Orleans got its water. The water just came up. They were just trying to relieve the water, but if you've got twenty feet of water it's got to go somewhere. They didn't even warn the people; that's why a lot of people drowned. So then we were getting the high tide from it, they had to move us, the building was starting to crumble, so they put us on dump trucks and took us to the river, and about three thousand of us was on barges. I was on a bargea bout two hours, down to the river, and then President Bush announced that he was going to open up the old Astrodome in Houston, TX, and they were going to take us there. First we got orders to take us to Baton Rouge, which usually takes us about one hour, but with the wind and rain took us two, and then they got orders to take us on to Texas, and Texas usually takes about what, four hour drive from New Orleans, but it took us about eight hours so we arrived about eight o'clock the next morning.
AIT: Who were you traveling with, who was in charge?
CRB: Got orders. City buses just got orders to come and pick us up. And when we got to the Astrodome people were waiting for us, with dry clothes, and you know.... After we settled in, we had food, first two days we had food, and then people were coming in and coming in and by Friday there were about 30,000 people coming in and it was overcrowded.