Best Survival Plan Ever
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Elaine watched as Frank came back into the house untangling the clothes line in his hands, after talking to the neighbors out on the porch for over 20 minutes. His face looked decisive as he tracked in water from the storm. Elaine didn't bother to argue with Frank because the water was already seeping through the floor from the storm. I knew we were in for more than the light floods we'd experienced in previous hurricanes. It had never been this bad before.
"Let's get the kids ready, Elaine. Can you make some sandwiches and put 'em in a backpack with some dry clothes?"
"Sure," Elaine said, getting up to put some sandwiches together. Elaine was thinking that she should put each sandwich in a baggy, and then put them in doubled plastic grocery bags, so they would be dry when the kids got ready to eat them at the New Orleans Superdome.
Before Elaine went to pack some dry clothes for each of the five children, she handed Frank a black permanent marking pen. "The news reporter said to write peoples' names and addresses on their arms. Let's put my sister's name phone number on their arms, too," Elaine said. "If we get separated, they can ask someone to contact her." Elaine had tried to catch herself, but the words were already out. She kept thinking. "If we got separated on the way to the Superdome or if Frank and I don't survive the storm, Elaine wanted somebody to call her sister in Sparta, Georgia to finish raising her kids."
"That's a great idea, honey," Frank said. "I'm gonna talk to them one by one and give them instructions, so if one doesn't remember, another one will. Rickey! Get in here." We had kept the kids distracted by putting a movie on the DVD player, but Elaine was sure they knew that something significant was afoot. Now Frank needed to prepare the kids to get going, starting with their oldest boy.
"Rickey, have a seat and let me talk to you. Roll up your sleeves, so I can write down your Aunt Vanessa's phone number in Sparta, Georgia on your arm. The storm is getting worse out there. It's starting to flood outside with the water seeping through the floor. We're gonna try to walk to the Superdome to wait until some federal help comes tomorrow morning. I'm gonna tie you kids together and you'll be the leader. You're the oldest and you're a strong swimmer, so I know we can all make it downtown in a few hours. If we get separated, I want you to ask a grown-up to call your Aunt Vanessa and we'll all meet up there after this is over. You understand?"
"Yes, Sir," Rickey nodded. "But, Daddy" We've never been separated from you and Momma before. Are you sure Aunt Vanessa will take us in How long are we gonna be separated??
"It won't be long at all, Rickey, maybe just a few days. We'll put you five kids on the first available truck or bus, then your Momma and me will follow along later, after we check on the house. Here, give me your other arm so that I can put your name and address on it. We'll only be apart for a few days. But I want you to keep all the kids together and make sure everybody gets something to eat. See? Your Momma is making some sandwiches to put in your backpack. Everything is gonna be fine when the help comes tomorrow. Those helicopters probably can't fly in the dark, and the roads are too flooded for the buses and trucks to get through. Okay, go put on a warm sweater, your raincoat, and some boots. Tell Erin to come in here."
Erin came into the kitchen without being called. He had been eavesdropping on Frank and Rickey's conversation while standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the family room. "Here I am, Daddy. What do you want me to do?" Frank looked up to see that Erin was already in the room.
"I want you to come here and sit down so I can write down your Aunt Vanessa's phone number in Sparta, Georgia on your arm in case we get separated on the way to the Superdome."
Frank helped Erin roll up his shirtsleeves and began writing on his left arm, talking hurriedly, the whole time. Frank talked to each child the same way, until he got to the two youngest girls who protested because they could not swim and were afraid of the rising waters.
"I'm going to tie you all up tight with this clothesline to Rickey. You've been to the community pool with Rickey. He's the best swimmer in the family. He won't let anything happen to you. Besides, Mom and I will be right there with you. We won't let anything happen to you, either. We've got to get going to the Superdome now, because when the rescuers come, we all want to be in one place so that we can get to out of here. I don't think anyone thought the hurricanes would get this bad. Come on, everyone. Let?s go, quickly, now!"
As Elaine hurriedly finished wrapping the sandwiches in double plastic bags and stuffed some dry clothes into Rickey and Erin's backpacks, Frank's explanations got shorter with each child. Elaine guessed that he didn't think the younger kids needed to know as much as the older ones. Or perhaps he just didn't want to alarm the little ones who really were not strong swimmers. Elaine and Frank had four kids of their own, two boys and two girls. They also watched another little girl, Bridgette, because her mother was a nurse. Bridgette?s mother had had to go to work in the emergency. It was times like this that she hated being responsible for somebody else's child.
By the time Frank started tying the clothesline around the waist of the children; Elaine was dressed in rain gear. Elaine helped Rickey and Erin put on their filled backpacks under their raincoats so that the food and extra clothing would stay dry. They didn't have raincoats for Ashley, Amber, and Bridgette, so Elaine cut holes in large garbage bags and put them over their jackets. It was obvious that the girls? legs and feet were going to get wet. Elaine assured the girls that they could change into dry clothes once they got settled at the Superdome.
"Is it far?" Amber asked. "It's real dark out there and I can?t swim."
"It's raining real hard, Daddy," Ashley chimed. "Why can't we wait until the morning?"
"Aw, you're gonna be fine, Baby. There are lots of people out there already walking to the Superdome. We'll just join the parade and meet up with them. We?ll stay in the Superdome tonight. The rescue teams will come in the morning. If we get separated from you kids, you just show the police your arms and ask them to call your Aunt Vanessa in Sparta, Georgia and they will get you to her house. Rickey and Erin are fine swimmers. They'll get all of you kids through the high water. That's why I'm tying you all together with this clothesline with my special, extra tight knots. Y'all just stay together and mind the boys."
Frank broke through the protests of the anxious children with a command to pray. The children bowed their heads. "Lord, please guide and protect us through this storm and walk with us to the Superdome. And Lord, please send help and salvation swiftly in the morning, Amen."
Frank and Elaine left all of their belongings in the house without a thought to the fact that everything would probably be soaked when they got back. For now, their lives were the priority, and they had to get out now. Elaine looked around one last time while Frank led the kids outside and began pointing towards downtown and showing the kids the landmarks that were sticking up out of the water.
"If you get lost, just ask somebody which way the Superdome is, and get to high ground. It might seem like a long time, but just keep moving until you get up there. Remember what I told you boys. Come on, Elaine! We've got to go," Frank called back into the house.
As Elaine closed and locked the door to the house, she thought of how futile it would all be to try to protect their furniture and belongings. Elaine could see their neighbors out on the porch or trudging through the waist deep water in the streets. Elaine had not realized the water was up to the top of their porch. "Be positive for the children," she told myself. "Don't let them see your fear."
Frank was already at the front of the line with the five kids walking behind him. At the opposite end, Amber, Ashley, and Bridgette reached for Elaine's hands and the sleeves of her coat, as she took up the rear of the group. Around them, people walked, or paddled slowly in boats and canoes, with their flashlights probing into the night.
As they began trudging through the windy streets with the torrential rains blurring their vision, they saw flashlights beaming from the people sitting up on the roofs or standing on the balconies of their homes, calling back and forth to each other. Elaine called to Frank, ?Maybe we should just climb up on the roof and wait until daylight, honey."
"No, this way is safer," Frank replied. All of the rescuers will go to the Superdome first. We need to make sure the kids are safe. We can send them to Georgia first, and then follow in a few days once we check on the house."
Suddenly they heard an explosion that shook the ground beneath them. As they all turned toward the noise, a huge wave came roaring through the streets with such force that they were all knocked backwards off their feet and carried within the strong currents. Instinctively, Elaine held her breath, straining to see in the darkness, while her hands lost their grasp on one of the children. She kept reaching out for anything firm or stationary, but there was nothing. Her arms flailed in an attempt to swim against the powerful currents of the water. Whenever the waves lifted her up into the air, Elaine tried to get her bearings, but nothing looked familiar. There were no landmarks. Instinctively, she began treading water, though her body felt weighted from her soaked clothes. She felt tired, but she struggled to survive in the darkness.
Finally, the waves leveled off and Elaine was able to breathe the damp night air as she treaded the deepened waters. "Frank? Frank, where are you! Rickey! Erin!" Elaine's voice was one of many voices shouting into the darkness. As she treaded water, trying to get her bearings to spot landmarks, she felt a body floating near her. Instinctively, Elaine reached out to catch it, and shook the arm. It was lifeless. This person had drowned in the heavy waves. "The children! Elaine thought to herself, "I must find my children! Frank? Frank, where are you! Rickey! Erin!? Elaine began thrashing in the water, unable to touch the ground in the deep waters. She began swimming towards the nearest voices. "Frank? Frank, where are you! Rickey! Erin!"
"There?s some guy back there, calling for Elaine. Are you Elaine?" Asked a male voice called out in the darkness.
"Yes," Elaine replied. "I'm over here! What happened? Where did all of that water come from?"
"I think the levee broke, lady. Are you alright?" The male voice answered.
"Yes, I think you?re right," Elaine called back to male voice. ?I?m going to see if I can find my husband. Is he over to my left?? Elaine began treading water towards the male voice and reached him momentarily. ?Have you seen any kids, Mister? We tied five kids together with a clothesline. Two big boys and three little girls.?
?No, sorry, lady. But I?ll look for them. Just keep calling out. Man! I never thought this storm would be this bad and the levees would break!?
"Thanks, Mister. God bless you! Frank? Frank!" Elaine called out as she tread backwards to where the other voices were shouting in the darkness. She thought to herself, "This isn't just rainwater anymore. It's all thick and murky. I don't want to take any of this water in."
"Elaine! Elaine!" Out of all the voices calling through the darkness, Frank?s voice finally registered with Elaine. She swam towards him. It seemed as if an eternity had passed since their family had left the house, instead of just a few minutes. Then in the moonlight, Elaine made out Frank?s silhouette sitting up high.
"Frank! Where are the kids?!" Elaine called out to her husband, as she struggled to get a foothold on the car door. She reached out her hand to be helped up onto the roof.
"I couldn?t hold them, Elaine," Frank sobbed. "The waves knocked us back, and we all fell apart. I just couldn?t hold on to anything in the force of the water. Did you see them?"
"I know," Elaine replied. "The water pushed me way down the street! I had to tread against the current to get back here. A man told me you were calling my name. Let's just keep calling them. Maybe if we just stay here, they?ll hear us, like I heard you."
"Rickey! Erin!" All night, Frank and Elaine each took turns calling out the names of their children to no avail. "Amber! Ashley! Bridgette!"
Finally, in the morning dusk, the rains stopped. A calm stillness came to New Orleans. The survivors began to look around in earnest. Their calls and cries froze in their throats at the horror of dead bodies floating upon the water, and the destruction of all the homes around them. At once, the survivors realized that the neighborhood where they'd lived was destroyed. Buildings were shattered, trees were twisted and fallen. Cars had been tossed and thrown askew.
"Maybe the kids made it to the Superdome, Elaine. Let's go see." Frank and Elaine decided to climb off the car and walk towards the Superdome in downtown New Orleans. The water was now chest high, but Frank and Elaine were oblivious to keeping their backpacks dry as they trudged through the waters for several blocks with the rest of the survivors. Then out of the corner of his eye, Frank spied a group of people leaning against a tree. He noted the familiar color of Rickey's raincoat and hurried towards it. Elaine followed as best she could, treading through the deep waters.
Frank reached the children first, reaching out his arm to touch Rickey's shoulder to turn him around. Rickey's body slumped at the weight of his father's touch, and he fell towards the pile of debris that had collected at the base of the tree. Frank caught the lifeless body and held it in his arms. First, Frank saw the bloody wounds on the boy?s forehead, before he looked down at his arm to see the lifeless body of Erin tied beside him. Erin was still tied to the bodies of Amber, Bridgette, and Ashley. At first glance, it looked as if the force of the levee?s waters had carried the helpless children in it?s wake and smacked them against the tree with excessive force. Each child had big, bloody bruises on their foreheads and hands. Their peaceful faces appeared to be asleep. None of the five children had survived.
"No! Not all of them!" Elaine shrieked, trudging forward to gather the girls' bodies in her arms. With heavy sighs, Frank and Elaine stood hugging the children's bodies. Elaine tried to think of some reason why God had chosen to spare their lives, only to take their children in this horrendous storm. Silently, Frank and Elaine resigned themselves to their grief.
Then Elaine finally spoke, "You didn't fail them, Frank. It was a good survival plan. Look, the knots you tied with the clothesline are still in tact."