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When Shanai Green slipped off a roof and into Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters, her horrified grandfather, Robert Green, could do nothing to save the 3-year-old "NaiNai".
He had two other children to save.
The disaster that claimed the life of Robert Green's beloved NaiNai also claimed his wheelchair-bound mother, Joyce Hilda Green, 73, who died while she, Robert Green and other family members huddled on a rooftop, waiting to be rescued.
Before the hurricane roared ashore on Aug. 29, Robert Green, 51, and his brother Jonathan W. Green Sr., 46, were living with their mother at her 1826 Tennessee St. home in New Orleans along with NaiNai and a mentally disabled cousin, Hyman "Herman" Sheppard, 60.
The four-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot home in the Lower 9th Ward had been in the family for 38 years.
Their daily visitors were NaiNai's two sisters, Shaniya Thomas, 5, and Shamiya "Muffin" Thomas, 2, both of whom went home each night with their parents, Everidge Alexander Green and Deanna Thomas.
A tax accountant, Robert Green is the divorced father of three sons, two of them twins, and a set of twin daughters. Working from his home, he also was the family caretaker.
The family had survived Betsy, Camille and other storms. "We had a respect for hurricanes," Robert Green said.
Before Katrina slammed ashore, his son Robert Green Jr. tried to drive them out of the city, but they returned because of the heavy traffic. They also drove by the Superdome, but decided to try later because of the long lines at the entrance. After dropping the family back home, Robert Green Jr. drove to Chalmette, where he got caught during the storm.
Back in their house on that Sunday, the family - Robert and Jonathan Green, their mother, Sheppard, and NaiNai, Muffin and Shaniya - waited, unable to communicate with other family members by telephone or cell phone.
Jonathan Green woke up shortly before 4 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29, and noticed water in the one-story house.
At 6 feet 8 inches and equipped with a life vest, Jonathan Green was tall enough to wade across the flooded street to investigate if he could move the family to a neighbor's empty two-story house. After kicking in the door, he returned to the family home, scooped his mother into his arms, and started out the door, but the water was too high - up to his chest.
"That's how fast the water was coming," Robert Green said. "We decided we had to get into the attic."
One by one, they climbed atop a floating armoire to scramble into the attic. Then, they watched in horror as the addition to the house broke off after neighbors" houses on both sides pushed their house into the street.
Jonathan Green, a teacher and basketball coach at Fortier High, started slamming his fist into the ceiling until he was able to punch a hole through the roof.
When Robert Green, who has rheumatoid arthritis, tried to help, he fell into the water. Unable to swim, Robert Green said, he was able to kick from the floor, pushing himself back above the water line. In the process, he pricked his hand on a nail, opening a wound that would become severely infected by the polluted water.
With the family atop the roof, the house started to move, floating down the street at the height of the tree lines.
Within five minutes, they landed two blocks away - at 1617 Tennessee St. A neighborhood friend was "clinging to the top of a tree like a cat," Robert Green said.
Robert Green lifted NaiNai to the roof of the more-stable 1617 Tennessee St. house and had turned around to grab Muffin and Shaniya when Jonathan Green yelled to him that NaiNai had fallen off the roof.
The water was too treacherous to attempt a rescue. Robert Green had the girls to worry about while Jonathan Green was attending to Joyce Green and Sheppard.
"All I could do is yell, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!" I couldn't deal with it," Robert Green said.
"I was Paw-Paw. I was the person she would look to. I knew she knew I would pull her up out of that water."
Then Shaniya, the 5-year-old, also fell off the roof.
Thinking that she, too, had drowned, Robert Green again called out to Jesus.
Then he heard a cry.
Shaniya, he said, had been able to swim to a truck.
The family made its way to the truck, from which they climbed onto the roof of the house. "Her swimming to that truck saved our lives," Robert Green said.
Then the storm hit.
"I was trying to cover my Momma with my body," Jonathan Green recalled.
He suspected his mother, suffering with Parkinson's disease, was beginning to lose hope when she told him she would take care of NaiNai.
"I said, "Momma, don't give up..."
Sometime later, he noticed she had died. She had a leaf stuck in her mouth.
"I couldn't tell you when she died," Jonathan Green said. "She went peaceful."
Once the sun rose, they could see a barge that appeared to have crashed through the levee and other neighbors stranded on rooftops.
Three neighbors in a bass boat - Ernest "All Night Shorty" Edwards, Antonio Guy and Keith "Bucket" Rivers - plucked the surviving family members from the roof and ferried them to the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, where the trio brought about 75 other survivors to safety.
Army trucks transferred the survivors to the Superdome, where the Green family members were separated. Robert Green and the girls, through a relative who was cooking for rescue crews, were able to stay in the security area.
On Sept. 1, Robert Green and his granddaughters caught the first bus out of New Orleans.
They and ultimately Jonathan Green and Sheppard landed in Houston. Muffin and Shaniya were taken in by an aunt.
The brothers and Sheppard were flown to Nashville, where their brother David Green lives. His employer, Travel Centers of America, paid for the plane tickets and put the men up for a week in a motel.
Listening to his brothers relate their ordeal, David Green could barely believe what he was hearing.
"All I could do is just sit there, listening to them - unbelievable."
NaiNai's body was found Oct. 25. She was buried on Nov. 19 at Providence Memorial Park in Metairie.
Robert Green and his relatives found Joyce Green's body on Dec. 29. She was buried at Providence Memorial Park on Jan. 14.
Joyce Green is survived by three sons, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her eldest son, Lionel Green, died a few years ago from cancer.
"She was a very strong, radical person," Robert Green said of his mother. A U.S. Navy veteran who worked as a civilian at the Army Port of Embarkation in New Orleans, she pushed her children to learn and to succeed.
"I never needed anything that my mother didn't provide," Robert Green said.
NaiNai also was strong-willed and, to her sisters, a caregiver. "She would always make sure her sisters had," Robert Green said. "She was just a special child."
Jonathan Green is now living in Nashville, where he had been teaching. Unable to obtain background clearance, he said, he hasn't decided whether he will remain in Nashville.
Robert Green is now living with Sheppard in a three-bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge, with Muffin and Shaniya staying with him during the day and making frequent sleepovers.
Robert Green said he plans to rebuild the New Orleans house.
"Building a house is nothing," he said. "Building a life back..."
The horror of the ordeal still tugs at Robert Green, who has shared bits of the story with The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, The (London) Daily Telegraph, CNN and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
He said he also feels a tinge of guilt.
"I really should've done better by my Momma and my granddaughter."
Still, he is thankful for the offers of help he has received, many from strangers."I'm not bitter. I"m not angry. I'm very happy in Jesus."
Other stories By Vicki Ferstel:
Memories of devoted father, husband