A do-it-ourselves shelter shines

NEW ORLEANS - When their homes began to sink in Katrina's floodwaters, elders in the quarter here known as Uptown gathered their neighbors to seek refuge at the Samuel J. Green Charter School, the local toughs included.

But when the thugs started vandalizing the place - wielding guns and breaking into vending machines - Vance Anthion put them out, literally tossing them into the fetid waters. Anthion stayed awake at night after that, protecting the inhabitants of the school from looters or worse.

"They know me," he said. "If a man come up in here, we take care of him."

In the week after Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, Anthion and others created a society that defied the local gangs, the National Guard and even the flood.

Inside the school, it was quiet, cool and clean. They converted a classroom into a dining room and, when a reporter arrived Monday, were serving a lunch of spicy red beans and rice. A table nearby overflowed with supplies: canned spaghetti, paper towels, water and Gatorade, salt, hot sauce, pepper.

At its peak last Wednesday, 40 people called the second and third floors home. The bottom floor was under water. Most of those taking up residence at the school were family, friends and neighbors of the poor, forgotten niches of this community.

As the days passed, most chose to be evacuated by the Coast Guard who, they said, came every day to help ferry out the elderly and sick, and to leave water, food and clean clothes for whose who preferred to stay.

By Monday, just 10 diehards remained at the school.

Disillusioned, maybe. Disoriented, perhaps. Determined, without question.

In the week after Katrina devoured the Gulf Coast they ate, slept and bathed here, aided by the Coast Guard supplies. Men slept on the third floor, women on the second, using blankets and cots they brought from home.

It all worked out according to the plan of Allen Smith, 55, a Persian Gulf war veteran known to the group as "Sarge." Before Katrina pummeled the area, he advised neighbors to seek shelter in the school.

Sarge said he knew the school he had once attended would be safe and at least the third floor would remain dry. That's what happened when Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans in 1965. Sarge, who was 15 at the time, joined his family and about 200 other people who used the school for shelter.

"I just took the idea from them," said Sarge. "And it worked."

So as Katrina made its approach on New Orleans, they gathered blankets and canned food, bleach and cleaning supplies, a radio and a good supply of batteries, and began moving their stash to the school. They decided to rely on the building's supply of paper towels and toilet paper.

In the days after the storm, the Samuel J. Green school also served as their base for helping others in the neighborhood.

They waded through filthy water to bring elderly homebound neighbors bowls of soup, bread and drinks. They helped the old and the sick to the school rooftop, so the Coast Guard could pluck them to safety by helicopter - 18 people in all.

All the while, they listened to radio reports of the calamity at the Superdome and the Convention Center. They heard that evacuees were dying and left to rot. There were reports of looting, gunshots, rapes, and no food or water. "There was no way we were going down there, to be treated like that," said Sarge.

Life at the school seemed far more civilized.

Clad in a white apron and plastic gloves, Greg Avery, a 53-year-old photographer on normal days, scooped hot beans onto a plate. Sierra Smith, an 8-year-old boasting a head of perfectly combed ponytails, handed them out to her neighbors with a smile.

She had been Avery's helper all week - between card games of Old Maid and Crazy Eights with her grandmother.

She arrived at the school with her mother, grandmother and grandfather. Her mother was airlifted earlier in the week, to find lost relatives. Sierra could have gone with her, but she wanted to stay with her grandmother and the community of exiles in the school.

"I eat food, I play games, I have fun here and I have people to take care of me," she said. "I get to pick out my own clothes and I take a bath every day, with some water and baby wipes and lotion and powder."

She pays special attention to her neighbor Anthion, 57, a 6-foot-5, weathered Vietnam veteran, whom she calls "survivor."

He might be known as the enforcer, but he is also a broken man.

"Don't ask him about his wife," Sierra warned, "or he'll start crying."

When the storm hit last week, he carried his wife, Angela Gwinn, 49, to a nearby vacant laundromat. Anthion, his wife and son Glen Gwinn, 34, climbed to the roof seeking higher ground. Hours passed, and no helicopters came to their rescue.

A neighbor on a nearby roof said he heard people were being rescued from St. Charles Avenue, so they all waded to the tony section of Uptown that remained dry while the poor neighborhoods all around it flooded.

Hours later a rescue convoy arrived. Anthion loaded his wife on the truck. But when he tried to jump in, a guard told him only women and children were being evacuated.

"They took my wife and made me stand there looking like a punk," Anthion said, his voice rising with anger. "It's my job to take care of my wife."

He paused.

"I don't know where my wife is," Anthion starts. "We've been together 29 years and ... " then he walks out of the room and lets out a cry.

"I told you," said Sierra.

All those in the group have been separated from their families.

Sarge sent his mother, brother and children to live with relatives in Houston before the storm hit. But he remained to protect their homes and to feed J.J., their Labrador-German shepherd mix.

"People ask us why didn't we leave, well, somebody has to stay here and protect our homes from vandals," he said. "This neighborhood is rough. There's also a lot of elderly people who need to be taken care of."

He's proud of the way they communicated with the Coast Guard to evacuate the elderly and sick.

"Eventually, I'd know when it was time for us to leave," said Sarge. "The Coast Guard said, 'When it's time to go, we will come and get you.'"

But by midafternoon Monday, other authorities decided that time was now.

A group of armed officers entered the school, demanding that everyone leave. The group included a couple of sheriff's deputies from New Mexico wielding M-16s, New Orleans police officers and some volunteers.

The scene quickly turned chaotic.

"They coming, they cussin', they got guns," Sierra whimpered, alerting a reporter. The authorities search the school, demanding everyone round up their possessions.

"You have to leave now," an officer yelled at no one in particular. "I can't believe you had this child in here like this. Let's go."

The group was allowed a few minutes to grab their belongings before boarding a motor boat.

When Anthion began to explain how the group had sustained elderly people in the community, the officer yelled: "Shut up. I don't want to hear you talking [expletive] no more." In the boat, authorities recorded each person's name, offered cold water and everyone relaxed a bit. "It's going to get better than this," said one officer. "We appreciate what you've done. But you can't live like that."

The boat took the temporary residents of Samuel J. Green school several blocks away to a waiting amphibious truck.

Anthion grumbled. Sierra, now calm, began chatting with a National Guard soldier, telling him she would like to be in the Army when she grows up. Sarge was upset.

"The thing about this here is they are embarrassed," Sarge said. "They all know we did a better job than [the shelters] did. We took care of ourselves. We survived."

After a brief ride, they arrived on dry land and transferred to white vans. A police officer said they were going to the Convention Center and later would be bused to Texas. Another officer promised to return to tend to the rest of the neighbors and to J.J., the dog left behind.

Sarge vowed to return to rebuild his community. "Hey, look," he said, getting everyone's attention. "No matter what, we stay together."