Dayton couple stranded in New Orleans

Debbie and Terry Sanders went to New Orleans to celebrate their one-year anniversary. They came back with stories of destruction and sorrow in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Debbie Sanders, a 52-year-old Dayton woman, said Friday their long weekend in the French Quarter turned into a horror when their flight was canceled Sunday, leaving the couple stranded at the Louie Armstrong Airport.

With the opportunity to get out passing them by, and airline ticket prices inflated up to $2,000 by those anxious to profit off the desperation of others, the Sanderses decided to wait out the hurricane in the airport.

That decision brought them face-to-face with chaos and misery - locals who lost everything, a woman who had to kill her own dog and news that gang violence had erupted in the New Orleans Superdome.

"We were at the airport for three days sleeping on the concrete floor," she said. "The storm hit Monday about 10 or 11 a.m. It tore off some of the roof and one of the top levels of the long-term parking garage collapsed. There were 20-foot sections of roofing that blew off. You could see daylight through one of the roofs on the concourse."

She said hundreds of tourists and locals took refuge in the airport, away from any glass windows, they all survived.

Sanders, who is the community outreach coordinator with Advocates to End Domestic Violence, said she met a woman who had been airlifted from the top of her New Orleans home.

"The water was coming up her house and she was on the roof with her dog and two bags of clothing and they wouldn't let her bring her clothing or her dog. She tried twice to put him in the basket with her and they wouldn't let her. She killed her own dog to keep it from drowning. She didn't want it to drown. She was in tears and then zombie-like. She went from talking to staring into space. No one knew what to say or do. No one knew where to go."

The emergency response crews were stationed out of the airport and from them Sanders learned how bad it really was. Gang violence was breaking out in the Superdome; a refuge from the hurricane wasn't a refuge from violence.

She said they talked about pushing the bodies of children and babies out of way to get to survivors. One guy told her that he rescued a family who told him there was an elderly woman stuck in her house down the street. They went to go check on her and had to hack her roof open. The only thing they saw was her face bobbing in the water directly beneath them. She was saved - right in time.

The survivors taking refuge at the airport ate food provided by the Acme Oyster Bar until it ran out.

"For a 24-hour period we went without food or water. On Tuesday we heard there was a market that opened up a mile from the airport. We walked down there. The heat and humidity was oppressive. We waited in line for three hours. The only thing we could purchase was Gatorade and snacks, which cost us $26."

The Sanderses were charged $7 for a small canister of baby power that still had the $1.69 price sticker on it.

"At that point we were so thirsty and hungry it was OK with us."

American Airlines landed one plane at the airport to pick up its personnel and remaining ticket holders. Even though the Sanderses held United tickets, the airline still allowed them on. The plane was filled with about 240 people, she said.

"Every time someone came on board who we recognized - because we mingled with each other for three days - everyone just applauded. When the plane took off we applauded and cheered. When it landed we cheered because we were someplace besides New Orleans. We felt really sad about the people we left behind because they had lost everything."

The Sanderses returned to Reno late Wednesday afternoon where she was greeted by more news - her daughter was about to give birth. Thursday morning Ryan was born - a tiny ray of life in a week crowded by devastation.

n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at or 881-1212.


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