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Katrina's Aftermath

The Unvanquished: A Cop's Story

September 18, 2005|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans — It was almost dawn. Patrick Hartman had not slept well.

Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans, but that's not what disturbed him. He had slept only fitfully since a traumatic shooting three years earlier -- and so little these days that his mother feared he was clinically depressed.

Weary and sleep-deprived, Hartman got up, ready to get to work. He was a New Orleans police officer. His regular shift wouldn't begin until 4 p.m., but he planned to leave around noon. He had been told that he would be part of a hurricane cleanup crew that evening, after Katrina had passed.

Patrick Hartman did not make it to work that day. Hurricane Katrina literally washed him away. It washed away everything stable and prosaic in the life of this Irish American cop, an intensely private and sensitive son of New Orleans. Like the city itself, Hartman was forever altered by what happened that day, by the privations he endured in the days that followed and the decisions he and others were forced to make.

The hurricane tested Hartman, 36, and he prevailed, but in a way that left him feeling brittle and unmoored. In many ways, his trials were the trials of an entire city: His home was flooded. He was submerged in fetid floodwaters. He was rescued. He rescued others. He was left bereft and homeless, wearing the same fouled clothing for days.

As a member of a police force shattered by the storm, Hartman lived a parallel life. He was both flood victim and working cop. The police chief said 80% of his officers lost homes to the flood, and a third of the 1,740 officers could not, or would not, report for work after Katrina hit.

Hartman's police station was flooded. He would have no police cruiser, no radio, no uniform. He and fellow officers hot-wired cars and boats, stole airport shuttle vans and took food and water from looted stores, he said. He was fired on by snipers, even as he rescued people from rooftops. He was involved in the biggest single police action of the flood -- the killing of five alleged snipers in crime-ridden New Orleans East.

After two officers committed suicide the first weekend after the storm, all 100-some officers in Hartman's district were offered bus rides to Baton Rouge to rest for a day or two before returning. Hartman and seven others volunteered to stay. They piled onto another bus, bound back to the 7th District.

"I watched grown men cry," Hartman said. "We thought we were going back to die."

After all this -- after a gashed hand bled all over a stranger's bedroom, after the skin on his feet cracked and sloughed off, after a desperate gunshot that left his hearing impaired -- Patrick Hartman did an odd thing. He went back to work. But not before he wrote a letter to his 87-year-old grandmother, describing all that had befallen him. And not before he went searching for the police medal he had lost to the storm.

*

He knew what had been forecast, but at 5 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, Hartman thought the rainfall was calm and ordinary. Yet it would not stop. He watched from the doorway of his efficiency apartment, a wood-frame structure attached to the brick home of his vacationing landlord, an FBI agent. As murky brown water began to rise, Hartman counted the bricks on a neighbor's house to measure the flood's rise.

Hartman lived alone, divorced, wedded to his job. He spent his entire adult life in the regimented world of the military and law enforcement. He left home at 17, enlisting in the Army with his twin brother. He served four years, another six in the National Guard, and put in nearly nine years with the N.O.P.D.

He rented in Lakeview, a neighborhood of majestic oaks founded by Irish immigrants on the city's western shoulder, near the 17th Street Canal levee. There were at least 100 cops and firefighters living there, solidly middle class, among pensioners in tidy duplexes. There is a saying in Lakeview during hurricane season: "Fill your bathtub with water and take your ax to the attic."

Hartman did neither. Although at least half of Lakeview had evacuated by that morning, he stayed put. His truck was in the shop, he said later, but he would have stayed even if he had owned a working vehicle. He had to go to work. A friend would be coming by to give him a ride to the 7th District police station in New Orleans East.

As the waters rose, he called to check on his mother, Cheryl, who lives about 20 miles west in St. Charles Parish. Then his cellphone failed.

He was strapping on his 9-mm pistol and police radio just as a flood surge crashed through the narrow passage between his apartment and the house next door. Hartman didn't know it, but the levee had ruptured.

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