Survivor stories: "We gave away everything we had"

A couple of words pop up regularly in Fred Wichers's speech: "So we...." And then Wichers says what he did next in the wake of the hurricane. So we started working our way down the roads with the chain saw; so we gave out all our MREs; so we cut her driveway.

Wichers sat out Katrina in his house in Folsom, on the north shore of Lake Pontchatrain, with six dogs, his "big" son, his son's wife, and her mother. Once the storm had passed, this 48-year-old school bus driver, diesel mechanic, and handyman headed out into the wreckage and went to work.

"I don't like taking credit for nothing," Wichers told his former work colleague Frank Carter over the phone, having just risen from a well-earned nap. "I just did what my military training told me to do. I needed to help and keep things going at a fast and furious pace."

With his generator, his truck, and his chainsaw, Wichers felt prepared to cope with Katrina's aftermath. But he empathized with people who couldn't. "I was a kid when Betsy come through," he says. "I was in Gretna then. I remember standing in an ice line with my mama."

Fred Wichers: We go to bed that night and all hell breaks loose. All through the night all we did is get up and walk out and stand on the porch and watch this hurricane go by. You seen things going by you. Stuff moving. You look up at the porch and you can watch the porch go left to right, left to right. You know what I'm saying? The whole porch is shifting. The whole house is shifting.

But nothing come off. It didn't fall apart. I had probably a hundred dollars worth of aluminum fascia come off. Two pieces of aluminum fascia came off and that was it. Everything fared real good.

When the storm was over with and everything calmed down and we knew we had survived, we went out with the chainsaws and we started cutting out the neighbors. There was trees everywhere. I mean, they broke them off 10, 15 feet up. They just twisted and broke off. And we made it to the front of my street and we looked down the road left to right and it was trees everywhere. You couldn't get 10 feet without hitting a tree across the road.

So we started working our way down the roads with the chain saw. At the time, I only had my one chain saw, my big Stihl. So we started with that chainsaw and we worked down the road to the little store where we used to buy ice. I had brought the truck. Every driveway had trees broke off, laying on the road. So we cut and cut and cut and cut--it was like three, four hours.

We met all the neighbors. A lot of them didn't have nothing. They didn't have no chainsaws. So it was just me, my brother, and my big son. We rode up and down the road, and we cut as much trees as we could cut. We had made our way out to Highway 40, and that's as far as we went that night. [After that,] the road crews came out and helped a good bit, too.

The next day, which is probably Tuesday, I finally made it down to Miss C.'s because we had cut that far. When we went in there, buddy it was just tore all to pieces. The big oak in the back, the five-foot oak, it broke the limb out the oak tree. The limb is 24 inches in diameter. The gazebo did fine. It took down both of the pecan trees. The walking path bridge--it's in shambles. Trees is falling everywhere.

Water level really didn't come up. We really didn't get a lot of rain. We had more wind. A hundred and seventy-five, sustained, and then the gusts was 190-something. It was unreal. There was a few times if we had stuck our head out, we knew it was tough. What made this storm bad was how wide it was.

Looking into a forest, a pine forest, where you couldn't see 10 or 15 feet in it, now you can see 75 to 100 feet. No trees nowhere. Total devastation. Trees totally snapped off, 15, 20 feet up in the air. The beautiful oaks that were there are not there no more, the big live oaks.

We went to [Miss] C.'s and made sure that everybody was OK. I pulled boards off the windows and took care of them. By the third day, FEMA was showing up with MREs, ice, and water. We were fortunate; we had a generator. But my kids on my bus route--I got me a new bus route at Folsom--and I have a lot of kids that really have nothing. Their color don't really mean nothing--it doesn't mean that just because they are black, that they're [poor]. A lot of [black] kids do have things. But a lot of kids don't.

So what we did is, me and my brother would go there every morning, we'd pick up the water and MREs that they would give us for our family that were here at the house, and we would go give it to [other people]. I would go on my bus route. I knew the streets that I needed to go on. So we gave out all our MREs and we gave out all our water to everybody we could find that was shut in, or couldn't get out, or their cars was tore up, that kind of stuff. We gave away everything that we had, and we did that for three days.

I kept my refrigerator going through the generator. I got a diesel generator now. By the fourth day, I need fuel. I was getting it out of my big bus tank. So then we made our way to Ponchatoula and we bought fuel in Ponchatoula. While we was out, we had chains made for our chainsaws. A lot of my neighbors [had] trees across the driveways. So after we worked all day at Miss C.'s, or giving away our food and everything else, we was going back after two a clock, and we was giving an hour or two hours to our neighbors just to cut them into their driveways. Just so they could get in or out. There was a lot of them that couldn't get out. Miss G.: She's 83 years old or 86 years old. She doesn't have nobody. So we cut her driveway.

And Mr. Core. He's the deaf mute just down the street from me. He was in bad shape. We never even thought about nothing. He didn't even know the storm was coming. He didn't watch television that much. So, we went down there, and he came to us for about three days. And we cooked, and he ate down here with us, and sat with the fan, and him and his wife sat down here. Him and his wife are both deaf and mute. She's got real bad cataracts so she can't see that good. Imagine her world, how this beat it up. We finally convinced them to go to Baton Rouge to their cousin's house; they've been there ever since.

That's what the storm was. We decided to stay, and so you just have to say, I can do this. And do it.

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