From hell and back
By Colette Lottinger -
Aug 31, 2006
|SWAT TEAM MEMBERS organized by St. Charles Parish Sherrif Greg Champagne included: From Left: Captain Patrick Yoes, Lt. Rodney Madere, Dep.. Ryan Ordner, Dep.. David Erhmann, Captain Jonathan Walsdorf, Sgt. Roscoe Brewer, Gary Martin, St. Charles School
A year ago my neighbor, Renee Riddick, went to work at Memorial Hospital as Katrina rolled ashore near Buras. She was on call that stormy weekend as a newborn nurse. Husband David decided to take their three girls to Austin, TX to ride out the storm.
Renee helped at the hospital until she was evacuated and ended up at the Convention Center at the height of the madness. The heroic middle-of-the-night rescue of Riddick and 26 fellow workers and two Australians by the St. Charles Parish Swat team made front-page news. Her story, " To Hell and Back" won first place in our paper's best news story category at this year's Louisiana Press Association's competition. On Katrina's anniversary I thought it would be good to give an update on Riddick to our readers.
This young mother said after the babies were evacuated from Memorial Hospital, she worked with other medical professionals to keep sick patients cool by fanning them on four hour shifts, and sprinkling them with cool water to help keep their body temperatures down. Whatever care could be offered was done to help make stranded patients more comfortable. She herself had been working since Saturday and had plugged in her cell phone when they had generator power. Riddick and the other nurses were huddled on air mattresses to try to get some sleep when the water rose over the third generator in the basement and the air circulation and the lights went out. On Wednesday she would be taken by boat to catch a bus.
It was expected that the hospital windows might blow out and the water would come up. In fact, it was almost surely expected that thugs on drugs would run out of their drugs and find their way to the hospital to get more...and she and the nurses might be killed if they did. In fact the reason they would be sent out of the hospital was because it was a place with drugs.
That's when things went from bad to worse, she remembers; when they were put on the last boat out and ended up on an island of despair called the Convention Center. And the promised rescue busses were no-where to be seen. She and her supervisor with her two small childrenwere dropped off in the pitch-black darkness on that terrible Wednesday night. She said she could not even see that they had been brought to the Convention Center. There were a lot of police cars, she remembers with their lights flashing, but they were just sitting there around the building.
Somehow, others from Memorial were located with the help of a tiny candle. Riddick took out a t-shirt she had brought and laid it down for the children to lie on. For their supper she had found a Pop Tart she had in her bag. She remembers fanning the children with her birth certificate, but there was no sleep for the grownups who kept watch.
People were thirsting for any drinkable water, but none was around where they were and she said she knew a porta-potty was too much to hope for. Druggies were roaming the area with their flashlights selling drugs and alcohol. Their supply of flashlight batteries and drugs seemed unlimited thought Riddick.
Around 1 or 2 a.m. early Thursday morning after the police cars left, several large, dark coach busses came to the Convention Center, remembers Riddick. She and her nurses were excited about being able to leave but stayed behind because the people dashing out to the busses seemed too unruly; screaming and all. In fact the people were so out of control the busses left. They ended up staying at the Convention Center from early Wednesday night until Thursday around midnight.
When daylight came on Thursday, they saw tanks and big army trucks and police cars just passing by, but Riddick says they didn’t stop to help. The nurse said she walked up to one of the guys driving a tank and asked what they were doing. He told her he could not talk to her.
Then a quirky little guard tried to line everyone up “for the busses.” This is when they waited in lines from noon until 6 p.m. and the busses did not come. At this point Riddick did not know if she would live or die. She was so thankful that her children were safe in Texas, because one of her children she thought would have been too thin to survive without food.
In desperation, Riddick tried to call her husband, and somehow her call went through. The first plan was to walk over the bridge and get picked up by St. Charles deputies on the other side. But some of the nurses wouldn't be able to make the trip, so they decided not to go. Since there were 28 of them staying together the number seemingly gave them more safety. People who tried to cross the bridge were being turned back by this time.
The second plan was to be picked up in a schoolbus near the Convention Center under the cover of darkness. When the St. Charles Sheriff's deputies showed up, Riddick said they just stared at them because they didn't think anyone would really come to help them.
Nurse Riddick says she is doing well now, but currently has to take medication to keep her stress level down. She gets heart palpitations without it and even got dizzy when she was shopping in the local Walmart. Her doctor explained to her that the body can feel stress even though the person is not aware of it.
Riddick mentioned that a lot of her friends had to quit nursing after their harrowing evacuation to the convention center. According to her these former nurses can not work at hospitals anymore and needed a whole career change.
She can no longer look at the weather channel if a hurricane is coming and does not want to be exposed to too many Katrina pictures. She thinks she is doing OK because she is not afraid to come out of her house, she has taken up gardening as a hobby and she has a job as a lactation nurse. She currently works 32 hours a week in the Breastfeeding Center at East Jefferson Hospital in Metairie.
This busy mother has also started her own business called Baby’s Way Lactation with Tracy Dufrene. They help young mothers learn how to master the correct nursing techniques.
Her story is included in Pat Yoes book “Chest Deep and Rising,” the story about what happened after Katrina from a law officer’s point of view.