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Copyright 2005 Newsday, Inc.



KATRINA SURVIVORS REUNITED;
Mother's great escape;
New Orleans correction officer safe on LI after harrowing odyssey in which she finds tot with now homeless relatives

BY JENNIFER SMITH. STAFF WRITER


New Orleans correction officer Shantia Barnes has only a handful of things to remind her of the life she led before Hurricane Katrina:

The six-pointed badge she wore to work for the past three years.

The cell phone she pinned up in her hair to keep it dry in chin-high floodwater.

The debit card she used to pay for a hotel room and rental car when she and other deputies fled New Orleans in a borrowed sport utility vehicle.

And her 20-month-old son Cristyun, who was being watched by her mother in downtown New Orleans when Barnes left for her shift at Orleans Parish Prison last weekend.

Mother and son were reunited Friday night at the Astrodome in Houston, where Barnes, who said she was stranded on an overpass after helping move inmates from the prison, found about 25 family members made homeless.

Safe and dry at her mother-in-law's house in Amityville yesterday after a harrowing escape from her hometown, Barnes told of water rising chin-high inside the jail, of fear and dehydration among evacuees, and of her desperate hunt for a safe haven in a city made lawless by disaster.

She said swimming lessons top the list of things she is grateful for now. "Out of 11 of us, only two knew how to swim," said the 22-year-old Army reservist, who moved back to New Orleans from an Army base in Colorado to be with family after her husband, Christopher Barnes, a soldier from Amityville, shipped out to the Gulf. Barnes' husband is en route from Iraq for a special two-week leave to spend time with his wife and son.

In the days leading up to the hurricane, Barnes' family - mostly renters who live in the New Orleans East neighborhood - did not leave because having endured previous hurricanes, they did not think this one would be as bad as it was.

That weekend, Barnes left her son in the care of her mother and reported to work because all deputies were supposed to be on hand during emergencies, she said.

As Katrina raged Monday outside the prison on Perdido Street, water began seeping into the building where Barnes worked. Toilets began to back up. By Tuesday, the water inside was about 3 feet high and about 320 inmates had to be moved to the second floor, she said.

As water rose 5 feet high that evening, the situation became desperate, she said. About 40 civilians, including family members of prison workers, had also taken refuge at the jail. Word spread among the inmates that the Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, where many had family, was underwater. Unfed for days, the inmates began to riot inside their cellblocks, Barnes said.

"We had no phone lines, no electricity," she said. "There was raw gas in the water ... If it wasn't for the deputies, a lot of people would have died."

She believes many drowned anyway, including inmates housed on the first floor of the Templeman 3 building, where Barnes said that in the chaos, some inmates may have remained locked inside.

"We evacuated everybody who was at the jail as far as we know once we got there," said Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, which helped evacuate the prison. Laborde said she could not confirm what may have happened before rescuers from her agency arrived.

Barnes said as the evacuation went on she joined hands with other guards, inmates and civilians. They moved together through the water from building to building until they were loaded into boats and ferried to an overpass on Tuesday evening. From there, prisoners were loaded onto buses, she said.

Barnes and a number of other deputies, including a cousin who also worked at the prison, slept on the overpass that night. By morning, she said, the buses had stopped coming and a supervising officer from the sheriff's department told them "they were only getting inmates out," Barnes said, although civilians who had been rescued from the flood continued to be deposited there.

Laborde said she could not confirm what officers from Orleans Parish may have said.

"Believe me, we would have transported anybody who needed transporting," Laborde said yesterday from Baton Rouge. She said about 6,500 inmates were removed from the jail.

Orleans Parish Prison officials could not be reached last night.

Believing they had been left behind to their own devices, Barnes and 10 other deputies waded out toward the Superdome. Half-walking, half-swimming, they took water from a bottled water distributorship to stay hydrated.

Eventually they ended up at the convention center, where they found food and chaos.

"There were bodies, a woman had been raped, people had stolen trucks," Barnes said, adding that the group decided to leave because it wasn't safe and no buses appeared to be arriving.

An inmate from the prison who escaped during the evacuation recognized the group and gave them a vehicle he had stolen - "a busted-up van" they drove to the city's West Bank, where they slept at one of the deputy's mother's homes and Barnes used a neighbor's phone to contact her mother-in-law, Teresa Barnes, in Amityville.

On Thursday the group borrowed an SUV from friends and drove to Jennings, La. There they disbanded, drifting off in search of family members.

Barnes used her cell phone to get information from a sister in Baltimore, who told her that her mother, her son and her younger brother had been rescued and taken to Houston. Barnes and her cousin caught a taxi to Lake Charles, then drove to Houston in a rental car, where on Friday they found most of her extended family at the Astrodome.

Fearful for her son's health in the stadium, Barnes took Cristyun and flew to Long Island, arriving at Long Island MacArthur Airport late Saturday night.

But the rest of her family remains in Houston. They have nowhere else to go, she said. "My family lost everything."
 

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Good Lord. The horror stories from this tragedy just keep coming.
Could you imagine being locked in a jail cell, in a prison completely abandoned, and watching that water start coming in? Rising first to your knees, then waist, chin... I'm no fan of convicts, but nonetheless, thats a horrible way to go...
 
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