The Big Blow

by Beth Green

Alternate Universe: Seven for Hire

Author's Notes: I needed the guys to have a different sort of skill set, so in this story they're a team of mercenaries. The person who first wrote the 'Seven for Hire' mercenary AU is no longer on the web, although it's an open AU that others (particularly slash writers) have written in.

The following is a fictionalized account of events which occurred in the summer of 2005.

The factual information herein is courtesy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and National Weather Service websites, as well as factual and anecdotal sources too numerous to mention.

Thanks to Linda for the beta; all remaining mistakes belong to me. Thanks to KT for the collage that accompanies this story. And thanks to Nancy as always for giving my stories a home.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Buck ordered another round of drinks for his friends, then declared, ""If I'd 've known mercenary work was this easy, I wouldn't have wasted my time on all the other shit jobs I had before this."

Ezra responded with an incredulous look. "While I'm sure that your previous employment was less than enjoyable, I must take issue with your description of mercenary work as 'easy.' I don't dispute the fact that no one sustained any sort of injury this time out. Not a single shot was fired. However, I cannot believe that you have forgotten the previous year's worth of missions in which we risked life, limb, and sanity in return for sufficient monetary compensation to keep ourselves clothed and fed."

Chris waved a hand at Ezra's casual but expensive attire, and commented, "Well-clothed." He gave a satisfied belch as dinner settled, and added, "And well-fed."

Ezra nodded. "Point taken." He frowned, trying to recall where the conversation had been going before it got personal. He gave a mental 'Aha!' and turned to speak to Buck. "We were very fortunate that our current employer did not have the requisite knowledge of the politics of the region. We knew enough to bribe the proper officials, who all but went into the jungle for us."

Josiah fanned a hand at his face as he remembered the three-day trek through the heat and humidity of the Peruvian jungle. "I wish that they had." He took a deep swallow of his drink to quench his sudden thirst, then continued, "At least the criminals were dumb enough to leave us a trail a blind man could follow."

Buck added, "And smart enough to know when to give up when we found 'em." He lifted his drink in salute. "To us!"

Seven glasses clinked together in celebration.

After spending three days in the jungles of South America, they had decided to use part of their earnings to treat themselves to an overnight stay at a luxury hotel. They enjoyed a seven-course dinner at the hotel's restaurant before ending the evening at the bar.

The next day they headed for the airport to catch a flight back to the United States. Chris relaxed while Josiah drove their rented minivan. The team leader was looking forward to getting home and spending some quality time on the sofa with his feet propped up while he did absolutely nothing. He thought that his friends had similar plans. In retrospect, he really should have known better.

Buck occupied his travel time by trying to figure out how he was going to spend the next few days. The others had mentioned tentative plans for possible solo activities, but no definite itineraries had been presented. The only thing that Buck knew for sure is that he didn't want to be alone. He mused aloud, "You'd think after all this time sharing the same space with six other people, I'd be looking forward to getting away from you guys."

Chris rolled his eyes at Buck's exaggeration. This was one of the shortest missions the team had been on in the past year. Chris let his irritation show in his voice as he pointed out, "Our time out was less than a week."

JD ignored Chris' testy comment. He was familiar enough with his team leader's various moods to know that the man wasn't truly annoyed. Instead, JD responded to the wistful tone behind Buck's words. He encouraged his friend to continue. "What were you thinking?"

Buck resumed his previous train of thought. "I was thinking that I wouldn't mind spending a little more quality time with y'all. I think we need a vacation."

Chris' derisive snort of, "Vacation?" was relegated to background noise when Ezra spoke over him. "I think that's an excellent idea."

Nathan agreed. "If you're taking a survey, put me down as a 'Yes.'" As much time as he spent with his friends, too much of the medic's time was occupied on missions requiring a tense, ready state of alertness. Their current trip had been about as far from a vacation as you could get. Nathan stared out the window of the SUV and watched the waves of heat rising from the road ahead. He commented, "I wouldn't mind a little fun with my sun."

Josiah decided to find out what Buck had in mind before offering his opinion. "Were you thinking of any place in particular?"

Buck smiled, cheered at his teammates' encouraging words. "You bet. I am a man with a plan."

Vin gave a snort of laughter. "You always got plans, and they always involve women in some way, shape, or form."

Buck did not disagree. "That they do." His smile widened as he recalled lovely ladies flashing their breasts in return for multi-colored strings of beads. He continued with a hopeful look toward his friends, "You all might appreciate the scenery where I'm thinkin' of going."

JD obliged Buck by encouraging him to continue. "Where's that?"

"New Orleans."

Buck was disappointed when his friends did not immediately respond with enthusiastic words of agreement.

Ezra felt the need to correct his friend's pronunciation. "Spoken like a true tourist. That's 'N'awlins."

JD, the least traveled of the men present, allowed the envy he felt to appear in his voice when he asked, "I take it you've been there?"

Ezra straightened his spine, the better to look down his nose at his young friend. "Been there? I was a resident of the Big Easy for a time."

Josiah smiled as some of his own fond memories resurfaced. "Ah yes, I remember it well. New Orleans," he quoted, "The City that Care Forgot." He went on to explain, "In case you didn't know, that's one of the more popular slogans used to refer to the Crescent City, the idea being that when you enter the city you should put your cares away and spend your time celebrating life. It's been years since I've been there. If we're going on vacation, I wouldn't mind paying a return visit."

JD was feeling more than a little bit jealous as he reflected on the unfairness of life in general and New Orleans travel in particular. He crossed his arms and his lips turned down in an expression that would've been called a pout if it had appeared on a younger face. If any of his teammates thought that he appeared more child than adult, they were kind enough to keep the thought to themselves. JD complained, "Seems like everyone's been to New Orleans except me." He did a mental review of his those present - first Buck, and where Buck went, Chris followed; then Ezra; and Josiah. JD turned to the team medic, and asked, "Nathan, have you ever been to New Orleans?'

Nathan responded with a quick, "Yes, I have." He continued, "Not only have I been to New Orleans, I actually have a friend - actually more of an adopted uncle - who lives there." He got a far-off look in his eyes, speaking more to himself than to JD. "I haven't seen or heard from him in years." He smiled, his memories obviously pleasant ones. "Uncle Ray's a great guy. I wouldn't mind seeing him again."

Vin suggested, "Well maybe we should all go. Just so happens, I've never been there."

Buck raised a hand to his chest in mock shock. His eyebrows raised to his hairline and he dramatically exclaimed, "Ain't never been there? Now that's downright criminal deprivation." He reached an arm across the seat to place his right hand on Vin's shoulder and stretched his left to similarly clasp JD. "Fortunately, we can do something about this problem." Buck's face bore a hopeful expression as he pleaded with the most reluctant member of their group, their team leader. "Chris?"

Buck knew that Chris had a tendency to withdraw into his shell like a hermit crab after assignments. Left on his own, Chris would retreat from the world. Judging from past experience, little good ever came from Chris' isolation. The man tended to get all broody about the past unless someone was there to distract him from his darker memories. Buck was determined to save Chris from himself. He prodded, "So pard, what d'ya say? Is the mission a 'Go'?"

Chris decided that he was the only sane person present. He pointed out, "So, you're saying we should leave the hot, humid country of South American so we can go to the hot, humid city of New Orleans?"

Buck wheedled, "Aw, Chris, you know they got air conditioning wherever you go indoors. And when you're outdoors, all you need is a hurricane or a snowball to cool off."

JD interrupted Buck with a confused, "A what?"

Buck explained, "They're drinks. A hurricane is a mixed drink with rum and some kind of fruit juice served up in a tall glass of ice; a snowball is for when you need the ice more than the alcohol. They put ice shaved so fine it looks like snow into a paper cup and then flavor it with syrup."

JD's face brightened as the 'I got it' light bulb figuratively lit up over his head. "Oh, you mean a snow cone."

Buck shrugged. "Snowball, snow cone, it's the same difference. Now, where was I?"

Ezra helpfully replied, "New Orleans."

Buck smiled. "Oh yeah. JD, you have got to see Bourbon Street. The ladies are not only on the street, but above it, on the balconies."

Before Buck could further rhapsodize over the city, Chris decided to offer his opinion. He had a tendency to run his team as if it were a dictatorship with himself at its head. However, Chris had his own fond memories of past visits to the city. He raised his hands as he surrendered to the will of the majority. "Ah, what the hell. I guess we're going to New Orleans."

Buck shouted out an enthusiastic "Whoo-whee!" in triumph while he pumped a celebratory fist in the air, then in atrocious French declared, "Let la bon temps rule-ee!"

JD asked for a translation. "What's that mean?"

Ezra sighed. "Perhaps if Mr. Wilmington had come close to a correct pronunciation, you might have understood that he was attempting to utter the unofficial motto of the city of New Orleans: 'Laissez les bon temps roule,' which translated means 'Let the good times roll.'"

Buck's face beamed with happiness. He slapped a friendly hand against JD's back. "Like the man said, 'Let the good times roll!'"

Buck declared that the trip was 'meant to be' when they were easily able to book a flight to their intended destination the same day.

JD decided to use his time on the nine hour flight back to the U.S. to research the city of New Orleans. He started with the tourist information sites in order to obtain an brief overview. From there he visited more in-depth sites as he educated himself on the culture, history, and geography. The more he read, the more concerned he became regarding one important fact: the land that the city was built upon rested below sea level. Once JD was certain of the accuracy of his research, he decided that it was time to share his findings. He began with a tentative question. "Uh, guys, is it too late to change our minds about this trip?"

Buck's "What the hell …?" was echoed in various forms by his teammates.

JD raised a hand to halt their protests, and began to explain. "From everything I've read, the city of New Orleans is an accident waiting to happen. What I mean is, there's no way in hell we should be there during hurricane season! If a hurricane stronger than a Category Three hits the city dead on, there won't be any city left! It's below sea level. The levees that keep the water out won't hold."

Buck frowned. "Kid, you're spending too much time worrying over statistics. Here's some odds for you to figure: What are the odds that the one time in your life you decide to visit New Orleans, the levees, which have been working just fine since before I was born, will be wiped out by your worst-case scenario hurricane?"

JD could've given Buck a best-guess number as to the actual odds, but decided to remain silent, especially after Ezra backed him up and not Buck.

Ezra conditionally supported his younger teammate. "I've learned from experience not to doubt Mr. Dunne's research. That being said, the nice thing about the United States and hurricanes is that our weather service is able to predict the path of a hurricane with enough accuracy that people can be warned in sufficient time as to be afforded the opportunity to get the hell out of the way. Now tornadoes, on the other hand …"

Chris interrupted Ezra before he could share any more gloom and doom. "I've heard enough bad weather predicted over the years that never came to pass that I'm not too worried."

Buck nodded in agreement. "I remember back when me and my Ma lived in Florida. The weather report said a hurricane was heading straight for us. All of the tourists up and left. All of the residents stayed. Everybody laid in supplies and boarded up their houses while we waited for the hurricane. That's when I found out about something called a hurricane party.

"The hurricane came and went. It hadn't been anywhere near as bad as the warnings. Sure, there was some wind damage, and the storm flooded the streets and blew down power lines. But rather than get upset about it, everybody in the neighborhood pitched in and had a big ol' street party. Folks set up barbecue grills so they could cook and share all their food before it spoiled. There was one giant cookout happening 24/7. I also seem to remember that, besides having plenty of water, there was enough booze laid in that none of the adults were feeling any pain." His smile was a bit wistful as he concluded, "It's one of the best memories I have from growing up."

JD decided that there was no point in mentioning the most worrisome fact he'd uncovered: there was already a tropical storm in the Atlantic that had the potential to become a deadly hurricane. JD quietly bookmarked the National Weather Service site for Tropical Storm Katrina so that he could continue to monitor its progress, then shut down his laptop to conserve the battery for the remainder of their flight.

+ + + + + + +

By the time they deplaned and collected their baggage, it was 1 a.m. New Orleans time. Vin commented, "Guess seein' as it's Wednesday night and all, our tour 'a the city's gonna have to wait." His comment was greeted with generalized laughter.

Buck clapped a friendly hand to his friend's shoulder and declared, "Vin, it's time to introduce you to Bourbon Street, where the party never ends."

The team members rented two SUVs to allow for comfortable seating as well as flexibility to allow for pursuit of their separate interests. With no major holiday on the calendar, they were able to secure excellent rooms at the New Orleans Guest House. The hotel was a convenient three block walk from Bourbon Street. The New Orleans Guest House was a lovely brick, gable-sided Creole cottage. The hotel had originally been built in 1848. The owners had kept the soaring ceilings and old world charm while modernizing the building to maintain the comfort of guests.

If Vin didn't know any better, he would've sworn he was in the middle of Mardi Gras, the huge annual street party that was a New Orleans tradition. The streets were crowded with laughing, happy people despite the fact that it was - Vin looked at his watch - two o'clock in the morning on a weekday. Even more interesting, the balconies overlooking Bourbon Street were also crowded with people, mostly women. Buck made it a point to smile and wave at the ladies, who smiled, waved, and in many cases flashed their breasts to the admiring men. There seemed to be strip clubs on every block, which to Vin's mind seemed unnecessary in view of what was available without charge.

The party atmosphere was added to by the live music offered not only by street musicians but by the many open doored clubs, each proclaiming that they featured the best available entertainment.

Truthfully, Ezra would be hard-pressed to choose between the various bands as to which was superior. The quality of the music was generally good to excellent. His body unconsciously swayed in time with the rhythm of the Cajun and Zydeco music as they walked slowly down the street. A combination of guitars, accordions, various horns and harmonicas provided the melodies while drums and frattoirs (referred to by tourists as washboards) provided the rhythm.

JD's head constantly swiveled from one side of the road to the other, trying not to miss anything. He was glad he hadn't been able to persuade his teammates not to visit the city. "This is great!"

Buck paused to blow a kiss in the general direction of a balcony-full of ladies before he smiled in agreement. "That it is!"

They paused in their travels and ordered 44-ounce drinks 'to go' from one of the street-front vendors. JD was impressed by the size of the drinks as well as the relatively inexpensive prices. An hour or so later he realized the down side of the drink deal. "Hey, guys, we've pretty much been up and down the entire street, and I was wondering …"

Buck prompted him to continue, "Yes?"

"Where's the bathrooms?"

Chris laughed and pointed to a nearby drunk who had just finished urinating into the street. He stated, "Well, you got two choices: you can follow his example -" JD's facial expression indicated that he would prefer not to urinate in public, so Chris continued, "Or you can pay the cover charge to enter any one of these clubs with the upside being that you get to use a real bathroom."

Vin stated, "That sounds good to me."

Ezra offered his opinion. "I agree." He continued, "When we passed by the Cajun Cabin earlier, I noticed that the band sounded particularly tuneful. If no one has any other preference, I suggest that we favor that establishment with our presence." The others raised no objections, so the team retraced their steps to visit the brightly-lit establishment. The bill of fare was posted outside the door. To the delight of Ezra's palette, the Cajun Cabin offered an excellent selection of Cajun food.

The members of Team Seven acknowledged Ezra's expertise in the matter of Cajun cooking. The men agreed that they wanted to sample authentic dishes, but had no idea what to order. Ezra assisted them in ordering a variety of items that were shared and passed: New Orleans specialties like Bayou Cajun Popcorn and shrimp boulettes; jambalaya with andouille sausage; crab-okra gumbo; etoufee; and assorted crawfish dishes.

After a fine meal and finer music, they resumed their exploration of Bourbon street. The men spent the wee hours of the morning visiting various clubs and entertainment establishments. They eventually gave in to their exhaustion, and well-fed and thoroughly entertained, returned to the hotel around five o'clock in the morning.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

There was only a two-hour time difference between South America and Louisiana, so the next morning found the seven mercenaries unaffected by jet-lag. Nevertheless, they were generally dragging from the adrenaline let-down of the usual mission-related stress combined with a night on the town. They awoke well after noon, with no plans yet for the remainder of their stay.

JD turned on the television in order to catch up on the news as well as to check on the progress of Tropical Storm Katrina. The meteorologist reported that the tropical storm was gaining in strength and appeared to be heading toward Florida; therefore, a hurricane warning had been issued for the southeastern coast of that state. Buck entered the room at the tail end of the report. "See, kid, you got nothin' to worry about as long as you don't go running off to Florida."

Buck did not want to waste any more time talking about the weather. He made a quick change of subject. "So, what are your plans for the day?"

As much as JD had enjoyed last night's street party, he was ready for something different. "I thought I'd try to see something besides Bourbon Street."

Buck nodded. "Good idea. Despite what you saw last night, there's lots more to this town. What did you have in mind?"

JD made use of his new-found expertise in all things New Orleans. He proceeded to outline his idea to tour the above-ground cemeteries and the famous Garden District with its historic buildings and old-fashioned street cars. Chris and Vin walked in during JD's travelogue, and were sold on the idea of accompanying them on their tour.

Ezra was less enthusiastic. "I have seen the usual sights that tourists see. Speaking of which, I was rather disappointed when we toured Bourbon Street last night. I recall a much larger, and dare I say, prettier segment of the female population decorating the balconies the last time I visited."

Buck tossed an arm casually across Ezra's shoulders. "You're absolutely right. If you'd like to spend some time with some sweet southern ladies, I know just the place: Lovely Linda's Emporium. It's off the beaten path, Uptown over by the Garden District, but well worth a look-see." Buck spread his arm in a sweeping gesture to indicate his circle of friends. "Anyone else want to check out the scenery with me?"

Everyone politely declined, with the except of Ezra. The younger man smiled. "In the past, I have found your recommendations regarding the fairer sex to be well worth heeding. I wouldn't mind a field trip to determine whether or not the lady lives up to the name."

Buck grinned. "It's 'ladies,' plural, and believe me, they do."

Nathan made his own plans independent of the others. "If you all don't mind, I'd like to spend the day with my Uncle Ray. He's got a place over in Arabi. Josiah, if you'd like a break from the tourists, you're more than welcome to come along."

Josiah nodded. "Thank you. I wouldn't mind leaving the crowds behind to visit some of the city behind the city."

+ + + + + + +

The team members spent a pleasant day enjoying their various activities.

As the daylight hours faded into night, the absent team members checked in with Chris.

Nathan and Josiah stated that they were going to vacate their rooms at the hotel and accept Uncle Ray's offer to extend their stay.

Buck and Ezra accepted an offer of a different sort. They called to say that they were going to spend the night with the lovely Linda and her ladies.

Chris, Vin, and JD continued to act like the tourists they were, and helped themselves to the entertainment offered by the city as Thursday gave way to Friday.

Friday, August 26, 2005

By Friday morning, the wind speed in the storm known as Katrina was measured at a sustained 80 mph. The storm was now officially a Category One hurricane. JD made sure that the batteries in both his laptop and his radio were fully charged. He continued to listen to the periodic weather updates on New Orleans' all-news radio station.

He shared the news with Chris and Vin over breakfast, then continued to monitor the news reports throughout the morning. He spared his friends the hourly updates by courteously using the headphones for his radio.

When Buck and Ezra finally rejoined the Bourbon Street contingent some time after noon, JD shared the disquieting weather report.

Buck was disappointed to learn that rather than entertaining himself with some good Cajun music, JD's headphones were instead supplying him with news reports. Buck chided his friend. "Kid, even if it's a hurricane and not a tropical storm, a Category One hurricane ain't nothin' but a big blow. Instead of bein' like me, and having your first memories of New Orleans be of wine, women, and song, you're gonna remember the voice of the weather guy." He pointed to the radio. "Why don't you put that thing away so you don't miss seeing the sights. That is, if you're still planning to join us when we act like tourists over at the best jazz club in town this afternoon?"

JD defended his current activity. "The thing is, hurricanes move slow enough that you can get out of their way if you have to." He waved the radio in his right hand to emphasize his point. "That means you have to listen to the weather reports and get the warning in time to heed it."

The younger man continued, taking advantage of the opportunity to share his new-found weather expertise. "Tropical storms have a tendency to increase in intensity as they near land. Sure, a Category One hurricane might break up into a relatively harmless tropical storm by the time it makes landfall. But it can just as easily increase in intensity until it reaches a killer Category Five."

Buck stood with his hands planted firmly on his hips. "So, you're not gonna go for the gusto and take what little time we may have left to enjoy the city while we can?"

JD removed his headphones. "I never said that. I just thought it was time for a bit of a reality check. Just so you know, I plan to listen to every scheduled weather update."

Buck relaxed his formerly rigid stance. "Does that mean you're going with us?"

His friend's look of surprise pretty much answered the question along with the silent, 'Duh!' that was implied as JD answered, "Well, yeah." The temporary and self-appointed meteorologist paused to set the alarm on his wristwatch for five o'clock, the time of the next scheduled weather update, before heading off with his friends for a leisurely stroll and a visit to the jazz club.

After his alarm signaled the appointed hour of five o'clock, JD ignored the live jazz music to turn on his radio. He frowned at the concerned voice of the weather reporter. The news was not good. The hurricane was now rated a Category Two, with sustained winds as high as 100 mph. The forecaster predicted that the hurricane was expected to worsen to Category Three status, with winds between 111-130 mph, before the day was out. The hurricane was traveling west-southwest, with a definite westward turn predicted for Saturday. JD updated his friends over dinner.

"Guys, I know you don't want to hear this, but it's looking more and more like this storm is going to hit the Gulf Coast, and they're talking specifically about the state of Louisiana. Trust me, you don't want to be here if that happens."

Buck leaned back in his seat with a sigh. "JD, you've been fretting about the weather since before we got here. Now, the weather happens to be one thing that you can't do a damn thing about. Even if Katrina reaches - What did you say? 130 mile per hour winds? That won't kill you unless you get hit with something the wind throws at you."

JD reached for his laptop as he spoke. "Buck, you don't get it. The wind is not the problem. It's the water."

Ezra helpfully supplied, "The storm surge. When you combine the rising tide with the precipitation and the water pushed inland by the force of the wind, bein' below sea level, like, for example, in the City of New Orleans, is not a good place to be."

JD nodded as he connected to the Internet to pull up a site he'd previously bookmarked. "According to the government, the levees are only rated to protect the city from a Category Three hurricane or less. If Katrina reached Category Four, we're dead."

Buck felt it necessary to remind JD, "That is, *if* the hurricane reaches New Orleans at all."

JD shook his head. "Hell, it doesn't have to be a direct hit. If the storm is big enough, simply being caught along its edges can bring a lot of grief. Even if the levees hold, a Category Three storm will cause the lower-lying areas of the city to flood."

Chris decided that he'd heard enough. "Okay. We'll give it another day to see if the weather service guessed right before we pack up and leave." He turned a stern look toward JD. "Until then, I don't want to hear the word 'Katrina' unless it's the name of the lady flashing us."

Buck nodded in agreement. "Speaking of ladies, who's going with me to Bourbon Street?" Every hand at the table raised in assent and Buck, JD, Chris, Vin, and Ezra set off to enjoy an evening's entertainment in the City of New Orleans.

By 11:00 that night, the National Weather Service reported that Hurricane Katrina had followed along the path of a predicted westward turn. The hurricane was now headed for the Gulf of Mexico and by extension, the City of New Orleans.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

On Saturday Team Seven's vacation officially came to an end. The Director of the National Hurricane center announced that Hurricane Katrina would be at least a Category Four, with winds of 145 mph when it reached the New Orleans area, and that it could be as high as a Category Five, with winds of 155 mph or higher. The residents of low-lying areas of the city were urged to evacuate.

Although the French Quarter was not in the area affected by the evacuation notices, Chris, Vin, Buck, JD, and Ezra prepared to check out of their hotel. Chris was the first to finish packing his bag simply because the team leader had few belongs and had never really unpacked. He picked up the phone and placed a call to Nathan at his Uncle Ray's home.

The other members of the team listened in. "Yeah, Nathan. … You've heard? … Of course… What? ... He can't be serious … Have you explained? … " They watched as Chris frowned and ran a hand anxiously through his hair. "I don't know. We were going to head for higher ground." He stood up and began to pace. "Damn it! You know we never leave a man behind. … Let me talk to the guys. I'll get back to you. 'Bye."

Chris put his hands on his hips while Buck asked the question on everyone's mind. "What's going on?"

Chris' jaw tightened in answer as he replied, "Nathan's Uncle Ray says he won't leave his house. Nathan and Josiah are staying with him."

JD jumped to his feet. "They can't do that! Give me the phone, let me talk to them!"

Chris shook his head. "Nathan knows what the stakes are. He said that, where his Uncle lives, folks historically don't believe what they hear, and they don't trust the government. Nathan's Uncle's evidently not the only one planning on staying. So are most of his neighbors. According to Nathan, even if worse comes to worse, they'll be okay." Chris huffed out a frustrated breath of air. "Seems in addition to boarding up the house and laying in supplies, Uncle Ray's got a boat. If the levees go, they plan to evacuate themselves."

Buck's eyebrows raised in surprised admiration. "Well, you gotta hand it to them. Sounds like they got all the angles figured."

Ezra felt it necessary to point out, "You've forgotten the old axiom, 'Anything that can go wrong, will.' I don't like the idea of anyone staying around to shoot craps with Ms. Katrina."

Chris agreed. "Neither do I. Problem is, it doesn't make much sense for us to stick around."

Vin suggested, "Maybe we should stop in and see them, just to make sure they're as ready as they say."

JD quickly agreed. "Yeah. That way I can make sure they have all the data they need to make an informed decision."

Chris added, "And maybe we can get them to change their minds." Chris made a return call to Nathan to inform him of their change in plans. After getting detailed driving directions, the team members piled into their SUV and headed toward Arabi.

After days spent among the upper class of New Orleans, it was sobering to see how just a few miles of real estate made all the difference between rich and poor. Arabi did not have any of the stately manors of the Garden District. While some of the buildings showed the effects of homeowner neglect and a lack of maintenance, Uncle Ray's home was in a block of well-kept houses with neat lawns and tidy properties.

Thanks to Nathan's excellent directions, Chris easily located Uncle Ray's home. Nathan and Josiah were sitting on the front porch, keeping company with a gray-haired man whom Nathan introduced as his Uncle. Once greetings were exchanged, Ray spoke to his visitors.

"Nathan told me you were comin', even after I tol' him to tell you not to bother."

Josiah was slouched comfortably against a post. He gave a friendly smile and said, "Sorry about that, but we're a pretty contrary bunch."

Uncle Ray smiled and relaxed his wary stance. "Jus' like Nathan. Ain't nobody can make that boy move once he's made up his mind 'bout somethin'."

Nathan did not think there was anything to smile about. He crossed his arms across his chest. "You're a fine one to talk. You're the one who wants to stay here and take his chances on maybe drowning or getting blown out to sea, no matter what anybody says."

Ray shook his head. "Even before me, this house has stood on this spot, and it'll still be standin' when I'm dead and gone. Every time a storm blows in, there's always someone sayin' the levees won't hold."

JD hurriedly interrupted. "That's because they won't! Sooner or later, the water's gonna breach the levees. The City is below sea level. The only thing standing between you and the ocean are a few layers of dirt and concrete."

Uncle Ray shrugged. "You may be right." Ray's speech was slow and easy, like the tempo of the city. He added, "About the levees." He paused, then continued, "I'm bettin' you're wrong."

Chris realized that nothing they could say would get the stubborn old man to change his mind. Chris suspected that would be the case before he even arrived, but he had to make the effort. He did not like the idea of leaving any men behind, no matter the circumstances.

Chris acknowledged the fact that his irresistible force had met with an immovable object. Uncle Ray was going to stay, and Nathan and Josiah were staying with him. Chris knew it didn't make sense for them all to remain in the hurricane's path, so the rest of the team would head for higher ground. To ease his worried mind, Chris made one last request. "Uncle Ray, do you mind if we take a look at your boat?"

Ray shrugged. "Don't make me no nevermind." Ray tossed a set of keys to his 'adopted' son. "Nathan, you wanna show the boys t' the back?"

Nathan stepped off the porch and the rest of the team followed as he walked around to the back of the house. He approached a small shed where he used the key to remove a sturdy padlock. Inside the shed sat a small fishing boat equipped with an outboard motor. Chris nodded in approval at what he saw as Nathan explained, "Uncle Ray's kept the boat up pretty good over the years. Even so, Josiah overhauled the motor while we were here. If we need it, this boat will get us wherever we need to go."

JD made one last effort to convince Uncle Ray to leave. He shared some of what he'd learned over the past few days. JD explained, "You just might need that boat. Coastal Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta were originally the natural flood plain areas for the Gulf of Mexico. If you consider the amount of damage done to the ecosystem over the years by coastal erosion and the development of former swampland, not only is the area flood-prone, but once water's moved inland by a hurricane, there's very little way for it to drain back out toward the Gulf. The floodplains and swamps that used to provide natural drainage for the area have been developed to the point of extinction."

"It's even worse news for New Orleans due to something called the 'bowl effect.' Topologically, the city is sitting in a large bowl-like depression below sea level. Once the levees fail and the water rushes in, there's nowhere for it to go. Water's not going to be able to flow uphill and back out into the Gulf."

Buck frowned. "I'd like to think that the government would be aware of what you're saying, and would've done something to make sure the city doesn't turn into a lake, but I've been wrong before."

Uncle Ray snorted. "I don't trust the gov'ment far as I can spit." He let loose with a spitwad to illustrate his point. "Don't matter either way. You can talk all you want. I'm stayin'." He added, "Nathan, Josiah, y'all can still go with y' friends."

Nathan and Josiah reiterated their decision to stay.

Ezra deemed that further nay-saying would be a waste of breath. He decided to play devil's advocate and counter JD's nature-loving argument. He pointed out, "It's easy to be a critic of the past while you're standing here today enjoying the benefits of modern development. You should remember that the sediments deposited by the movement of water over hundreds of years made the delta a fertile area to plant and therefore an attractive lure to early settlers. As the area grew, economically it made sense to further develop the coastline. If you have a port city serving ships that come in through the Gulf, you're not going to want to build the city housing your resources some two hundred miles inland."

JD crossed his arms and frowned. "It's all right for you to make excuses, but the end result is that there are thousands of people living in areas that sooner or later are going to flood."

Ezra raised a finger to indicate that he had something to add. "Have I mentioned the number of oil well platforms located just off the coast of Louisiana? The wells that provide a commodity to this country more coveted than gold? The infrastructure to maintain the wells is necessarily located along the coast."

JD's "Yeah, but …" was cut off by Chris. "This argument is pointless. Right here and now all we need to know is where's the safest place to ride out this storm without going to the top of the Rockies? We want to stay close enough to be able to get back in a hurry if Nathan or Josiah need our help."

JD explained, "If we want to stay safe, we can't stay close. This storm is a monster, covering a huge area." He pulled up a map on his computer, and pointed a finger somewhere in the middle of the nearby state of Mississippi.

"Near as I can figure, based on its elevation above sea level and distance from any major body of water, Carthage, Mississippi, is where we want to go."

The five team members concurred with JD's recommendation. None of them were happy about the fact that they would be some two hundred miles away from Nathan and Josiah. They said their goodbyes with the hope that they would soon be reunited.

Buck made contingency plans while Chris drove. After a fair bit of cursing and more than a few phone calls, Buck announced, "I did it!" He waved his cell phone triumphantly in the air and explained, "I called a friend of a friend, and he put me in touch with someone who'll rent us a helicopter if we need one. If this is the beginning of the Apocalypse and Nathan and Josiah need a lift to get to Noah's ark, I got it covered."

Chris ignored Buck's hyperbole and focused on the relevant details: a viable plan to aid their absent team members. His lips twitched briefly into an almost-smile. "That's good. That's very good." He added, "Wish we had a helicopter now instead of having to make our way through all this damn traffic."

The members of the team were not the only people taking the hurricane warning seriously. The roads were congested with traffic heading away from the approaching storm. What should have been a five hour drive turned into six, then seven hours. They were road weary and more than happy to pull into the first hotel with a 'Vacancy' sign posted when they reached their destination.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

They slept through the remainder of Saturday and woke to the sound of Sunday morning's weather forecast, courtesy of JD who had been the first to wake up and turn on the television.

"The National Hurricane Center has issued a warning upgrading Hurricane Katrina to a devastating Category Four or possibly even Five. The warning covers the North Central Gulf Coast area from Morgan City, Louisiana eastward to the Alabama/Florida border. Isolated tornadoes will be possible beginning this evening over southern portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, as well as the Florida panhandle.

The report went on, "Residents of low-lying areas have been urged to evacuate …" repeating information they already knew.

Buck's succinct "Shit" summed up his friend's feelings during the broadcast.

At 9:30 a.m. the Mayor of New Orleans held a press conference. After a grim report of the hurricane's potential to cause catastrophic damage, Mayor Ray Nagin announced that, for the first time ever, he was issuing an order for a mandatory evacuation of the city.

+ + + + + + +

At Nathan's request, his Uncle turned the television on Sunday morning and kept it on all day. Uncle Ray was not impressed by the Mayor's press conference. "Huh. 'Find yourself a ride and get out of the city.' That's easy for him to say. No, thank you."

Nathan tried one more time to get his Uncle to leave. "You got yourself a ride: me! This is gonna be bad. You heard the reports. Even if the levees hold, there's going to be flooding. The wind will bring down the power lines, the phone lines, the cell phone towers. There won't be any emergency services. We could be cut off for days."

Uncle Ray calmly stated, "Y' ain't tellin' me nothin' new. You and your friend Josiah boarded up the house for me. We got plenty a' supplies laid in. I ain't leavin'." He added, "No need for you and Josiah to stay."

Nathan disagreed. "Much as your neighbors are good people, there's always rats who come up out of the sewers when they're flooded out of their tunnels."

Josiah clarified, "You're talking about looters."

Nathan nodded. "Wish I wasn't, but … yeah."

Uncle Ray shrugged. "Not that you're gonna need it, but I hope you boys got plenty 'a ammunition for them guns 'a yours."

Josiah patted his sidearm in reassurance. "That is not a problem."

Nathan was tired of sitting around and waiting. He stated, "Well, seems like I'm wasting my breath talking to you. Maybe I'll go talk to your neighbors, see if they'll listen to reason."

Josiah stood to join his friend. "I've been told I have a way with words. I'll go with you."

The two men did what they could. Some of the people who'd said yesterday they weren't going to leave had done so during the night. An alarming number of residents were still present, and reiterated the fact that they had no intention of leaving.

Their reasons were many and varied. Some said they thought that the weather reporters were wrong, as they had been in the past. More than one person stated that they did not believe the storm was going to be that bad.

Many of the residents relied on public transportation, and did not own private vehicles. Josiah was disturbed when more than one person stated that they had no where to go, and no way to get there even if they did.

Josiah spoke of the resources provided by the city, the public transportation. He mentioned the buses. He was laughed at.

"I don't know if you've looked at the street lately, but the buses ain't runnin' today. Most likely, drivers have already left town."

Josiah clarified, "The Mayor says that they've set up twelve pick-up sites for the buses around the city. If you walk over to the nearest one, they'll get you out of the flood area."

One of his listeners spoke up. "Hot as it is today, Lavon's friend's nephew walked all the way over there. He says there was too many people and not enough buses, and they don't let you take nothin' on the buses but your own self 'cause there ain't no room, so he come on back home."

Josiah repeated the information he'd heard earlier on the news, that the City's Superdome sports arena had been set up to take in refuges from the storm. People dismissed the possible shelter with reasons along the lines of, "No way! I hear there's already 20,000 people in there." "That may be a fine place to be when there's a game on, but ain't no way to live. We're staying."

After a day spent walking through the neighborhood, Nathan and Josiah had convinced a grand total of three families to leave. Nathan verbalized his frustration. "Seems like folks would rather stand in front of an oncoming train instead of getting the hell out of the way."

Josiah agreed, but he could also see why people like Nathan's Uncle Ray wanted to stay. Some of it was due to the naive belief that disasters happened to other people. Additionally, there was the understandable fear of change. Folks did not want to leave their homes only to return to find nothing left of the familiar, to discover that everything they once had was gone due to destruction from wind, rain, and/or looters. Monetary concerns were prominent on the list of people's worries. Many of the residents relied on government checks for their basic needs. It was the end of the month, when the payouts for those on welfare, social security, or disability, had already been spent. Those with cars couldn't afford to pay for the gas.

Josiah offered a small bit of consolation to his friend. "At least thanks to us there are three less families in harm's way."

Nathan sighed. He would have to be satisfied with that.

At 10:35 p.m. the Emergency Management Director held a news conference. He announced that Hurricane Katrina was bound head-on into the New Orleans metropolitan area. The first hurricane-force winds of around 75 mph were expected to occur around midnight.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The members of the team housed safely in Mississippi were relieved when the morning weather report revealed that the forecasters had been slightly inaccurate. Instead of hitting New Orleans straight on, the main force of Hurricane Katrina moved slightly northeast, causing the full impact of the storm to assault the coastal area of Mississippi. Despite the redirection, the vast size of the hurricane meant that the City of New Orleans was still feeling its effects. In New Orleans, winds were steady and severe, with gusts of up to 70 mph. Rain fell steadily and heavily, dropping at times as much as 2 inches per hour upon the city.

JD could not help but wonder about the health and safety of his absent friends. He hoped that the doomsayers who were criticizing the levees as being structurally unsound would be proven wrong. He shut down his computer, closing off his view of the theoretical information that all too convincingly presented the case against the levees.

+ + + + + + +

With the raging storm literally upon their doorstep, no one in Uncle Ray's home slept Sunday night. The structure bowed and swayed as it was buffeted by heavy gusts of wind. More than once during the long night the ferocity of the storm suggested that it was only a matter of time before the house was destroyed. By three a.m., Nathan, Josiah, and Uncle Ray found themselves powerless both literally and figuratively. As expected, the winds had damaged the power lines. The men sent prayers heavenward while they accessed previously prepared flashlights to aid their night vision.

Nathan turned to Josiah. "If any time after today you hear me say anything ever again about stayin' to ride out a hurricane, remind me of this day. That is, if we survive."

Hoping to inspire his fellow refugees, Josiah replied with more confidence than he was feeling. "Oh, we will." He added, "And I will remind you."

Uncle Ray added a positive note of his own. "It's up to God to decide whether or not we make it through this, but I got a feelin' he's on our side."

By 6:00 a.m. the men were restless and tired of waiting. Josiah decided to risk a brief visual assessment of the home's exterior. Nathan joined him and they opened the door a crack. The wind tried to force the door open the rest of the way, but Nathan leaned his weight against the solid wood surface while Josiah took a look. A long minute later Josiah helped Nathan to secure the door. The older man leaned his back against the closed door. His expression conveyed the news before he reported, "It doesn't look good. The street's flooded, and water's coming up over the curb." Josiah wiped a damp hand across his equally wet face, then headed for the bathroom while stating the obvious: "I need a towel." He returned about five minutes later.

Nathan had to raise his voice to be heard over the fury of the storm. "I'm glad we spent the last couple of days moving anything valuable up to the second floor. If the water keeps rising, we're gonna get our feet wet.

Uncle Ray had been listening to the two men speak without comment. He finally spoke up. "How bad's it lookin' to be?"

Nathan made no attempt to downplay the danger of their situation. He replied, "Bad enough to worry. We're hours away from the eye of the storm, and the water's already up over the curb. If you figure we're still due for an equal amount of rain to come, I think we'd better get the boat ready, just in case."

Josiah stopped using the towel when Nathan's comment brought with it the realization that they were about to get much wetter. The older man headed for the back door of the house while Nathan retrieved the key to the shed.

Nathan explained, "If we need the boat in a hurry, it's not gonna do us much good locked up in the shed. I figure we'll pull it out, tie it to the house," he flashed one of his ever-present knives as he continued, "Cut it loose if we need to leave quick."

Josiah nodded, and the two men headed out into the storm. The force of the wind made it impossible to stand upright. Little of the sun's light penetrated the thick layers of cloud, making it difficult to see through the driving rain. The two men were pelted with bits of debris and wind-borne rain as they slowly made their way along the path to the shed. They had to hold each other upright as they took turns tripping over storm-tossed detritus. Eventually, the dark shape looming ahead let the men know that they had reached their goal. Nathan fumbled at the lock while Josiah sheltered him as best he could by acting as a human windbreak. The medic's "Got it!" was overshadowed by a grunt of pain from his friend. Nathan raised his voice so that he could be heard over the roar of the storm. "You all right?"

Josiah yelled back, "I think so. I just got hit with something." He continued, "Ask me again when we get back to the house. For now, let's do what we came to do so we can get the hell out of here."

Nathan knew that his friend was in pain due to his slower than normal movements. Nevertheless, he agreed with Josiah's last words. The two men worked together to haul the boat out of the shed and secure it to the home's exterior. Nathan rechecked the bindings on the tarp that protected the interior of the boat and the emergency supplies they'd packed earlier. He declared, "We're done!" and assisted Josiah as the two men made their way back into the house.

Once inside, Nathan ignored the towel offered to him by Uncle Ray in order to examine his friend. "Where'd you get hit?"

Josiah paused in the act of drying himself off to reply, "Middle of my back."

"Let me see."

Josiah lifted up his shirt to allow the medic access to the injured area.

Nathan did not like what he saw. "Damn. Looks like you got hit hard enough to crack a rib or two. How do you feel?"

Josiah hissed through his teeth as Nathan's hands encountered a particularly sore spot. He ground his teeth together and replied, "Like I might have a broken rib or two."

Nathan silently cursed their current circumstances. He really wished Josiah could get a chest x-ray and definitive medical care if needed. Instead, Nathan offered his best professional assessment and reassured his friend as much as he could under the circumstances. "If you did fracture anything, it seems like a stable hairline fracture and not something more serious. Just try not to get hit there again, or you might find yourself in real trouble."

Josiah cocked his head to the side as he listened to the fury of the storm trying to pull the house from it foundations. He commented, "I'll do my best, but I'm afraid that the real trouble is just outside the door."

+ + + + + + +

The men sheltering in Uncle Ray's home had grown used to the sounds of the storm raging outside. Therefore, they immediately noticed when the sound changed. At approximately eight a.m., the roaring of the wind was overshadowed by a more ominous train-like sound. Water began to seep into the house as the roaring sound continued. The water level rose rapidly, too quickly for them to make it outside to the back of the house and the tethered boat.

Nathan did not need to shout, "Upstairs! Now!" The two men in the room with him were already in motion. The water followed upon their heels as they climbed. They had discussed what they would do in the event of massive flooding. Nathan blessed their foresight even as he cursed the rising water. The flooding did not stop at the level of the first floor ceiling. Instead, the water threatened to inundate the second floor as well. They left the second floor and made their way up a previously placed ladder and into the upper attic crawlspace. Nathan regretted the fact that he had honored Uncle Ray's wishes when the old man had refused to allow him to saw a hole in the roof in case an emergency exit was needed. He grabbed the handsaw he had left under the eaves 'just in case,' and began to saw at a boarded section of roof. Josiah held his flashlight to illuminate the work area. Nathan cursed in time to the motion of the saw. "Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!"

Uncle Ray had begun to pray. "Oh, sweet Jesus, if this be my time, I'm ready to go. Lord, not my will, but thy will be done."

While Nathan worked with the saw, Josiah stared through the access door down into the room below and watched the water rise. After ten minutes that seemed more like hours, he thought that the up-swell of water was decreasing. He watched for another ten or fifteen minutes, hoping that it was not the result of wishful thinking on his part. He realized that it was not. The water had filled the room below halfway to the ceiling, where it now sat level and calm. Josiah shared the news with his companions. "Brothers, I believe that God has other plans for us today. It seems as if the flood waters aren't going to join us up here."

Uncle Ray crawled over to the access door and stared anxiously into the murky depths of the second floor room. After a few minutes, he visibly relaxed. "Thank you, Jesus."

Josiah echoed the sentiment. "Amen."

Nathan did not slow down. He was making quick progress in his self-assigned task of creating an emergency exit. After a few minutes, the square section of roof being removed began to sag. Nathan stopped temporarily as the sagging wood trapped the saw's blade. He cursed. "Damn it!"

Josiah moved to his friend's side. "Allow me." His raised his hands to support the square section of the soon-to-be emergency exit.

Nathan nodded his thanks. He paused to swipe an arm across his face in order to remove the irritating film of sweat and sawdust created by his work, then resumed sawing. A few minutes later, the task was completed. Josiah and Nathan eased the square of roofing to the ground, then ducked away from the fury of the storm. The three men moved away from the opening for safety's sake, to avoid the wind-borne rain and debris entering the crawlspace through the breach in the roof. They positioned themselves close to the access door, to allow for continued observation of the water level in the room below.

Nathan commented, "As long as the wind keeps blowing and the water doesn't rise, we're gonna stay put for a while."

Josiah nodded. "I agree. There's no need to leave right this minute and risk the hurricane's wrath. Good Lord willing, we won't have any reason to head for the boat until the storm's passed."

Nathan added, "Thing of it is, we don't really know where to head for dry land. Before the storm, the Superdome was taking in refugees, but who's to say the hurricane didn't damage that, too?"

Josiah sighed. "There is that. As long as the water doesn't rise any higher, maybe we should just stay put until the National Guard shows up. We've got plenty of bottled water downstairs."

Uncle Ray added, "And it's all underwater."

Nathan shrugged. "Good thing for us, we stored it on the second floor. Once I've had a chance to catch my breath, I'll go down and get it."

The three men continued to watch and wait.

+ + + + + + +

Chris, Vin, Buck, JD, and Ezra were reduced to the role of helpless observers as the hurricane raged around them. They listened to the pounding rain and wind howling outside the windows of their hotel, and tried not to image what it was like for Nathan and Josiah back in New Orleans. The television was on in the background, providing constant updates on the storm's progress.

They tried to call Nathan; to no one's surprise, the phone service to the New Orleans area was no longer operational. All they could do was watch and wait.

They listened as the news anchor read reports of the storm damage inflicted upon the Mississippi area. The list was long and disheartening. Finally, the update was given for New Orleans.

"The eye of the hurricane is now over the eastern area of New Orleans. Due to damages from high winds, Louisiana Entergy reports that some 317,000 customers are without power. Flooding is reported in the lower lying areas, particularly in the Ninth Ward where water is now coming over the tops of the levees.

"While the worst of the storm is expected to pass through the New Orleans area this afternoon, Governor Blanco is asking that residents who evacuated the metropolitan New Orleans area remain outside the region until they are told by local officials that it is safe to return.

"Stay tuned for our ongoing coverage of Hurricane Katrina."

The five men relaxed with the news that the knowledge of damage that would be caused by the storm was pretty much a known variable. JD was not as optimistic. While his friends stayed tuned to the television news which suggested throughout the morning that the City of New Orleans had escaped the worst-case Category Five hurricane speculative predictions, JD was reading the online updates from the National Weather Service and the News Orleans Times-Picayune. He scanned the bulletins, looking for information regarding the levees.

At 11:00 a.m., he read the first of the reports he had been hoping never to see: 'The National Weather Service reported that a levee broke on the Industrial Canal near the St. Bernard-Orleans Parish line.'

JD's dismayed cry of, "Oh, God," was heard by his teammates. At the same time Chris was asking what was wrong, the television news broadcaster shared the news they'd been dreading: one of the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain from the city of New Orleans was no longer intact. JD knew that this was only the beginning of the bad news.

Throughout the day, the newsreaders provided updates regarding the futile battle to repair the broken levee. Every hour brought new reports of flooding, of houses and businesses being submerged, of people trapped and waiting for rescue.

Buck was pacing back and forth as the damage toll continued to rise. He raised his hands, waving them in the air as he verbalized his frustration. "This is crazy! We should've stayed. At least then we'd be doing something."

JD countered, "What we'd be doing would be adding to the number of people waiting to be rescued. We may be a great team, but there's not a damn thing we can do to hold back a flood or a hurricane."

Buck yelled, "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

JD paused to allow Buck's temper a moment to cool before he quietly replied, "No, it's not."

The room was quiet after his statement. The team members had nothing to add. They all shared in Buck's frustration.

Buck stopped his pacing to turn and confront his friends. "So what do you say? We goin' back?"

Chris took a silent survey of the room, nodded once, then spoke to Buck: "Guess you better call your friend about that chopper."

Buck nodded. "Thing of it is, I'm not gonna be able to do any flying until the hurricane passes through. We won't do Nathan and Josiah any good if we get ourselves killed before we even get there."

Chris' hands curled into fists. The need to take physical action coupled with the knowledge that there was nothing the team could do right now except watch, wait, and worry caused every muscle in his body to tense. He knew that Buck was right, but that didn't make their current inaction any easier to tolerate.

JD checked the reports from the National Weather Service and reported the results to his teammates. "Well, it looks like the hurricane won't be done with New Orleans until sometime late tonight. That means it won't be over here in Mississippi until the morning."

Buck got on the phone and arranged for their ride. The helicopter would be ready and waiting early the next morning.

Arrangements made, the team members had nothing more to do other than catch what sleep they could during the long night ahead.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Before dawn the next morning, the team members quartered in Mississippi piled into their rented vehicle. They used the time on the drive up to the private airport to plan.

Buck began by explaining, "Guys, this chopper only holds five people safely, weight-wise. If I'm gonna give a ride to Nathan, Josiah, and Uncle Ray, you all can't go with me."

Chris agreed. "I know. The Bell Jet Ranger helicopter can carry a payload of what, six hundred kilos?"

Buck corrected his friend. "Six hundred thirty-five."

Chris grimaced at Buck's teasing. "Whatever." Chris knew that Buck was impressed with the team leader's knowledge regarding the Bell Jet Ranger, but rather than say so, the man chose to nitpick. Too wound up to engage in useless banter, Chris stated, "You take JD along for extra manpower."

Buck concurred. "Yeah, that's what I was thinking. I may need the help, and he takes up the least room. If we need to rescue anyone besides our guys, we can do it as long as they don't weigh half a ton.

"Since you all can't stay with me and JD, I was wondering if you'd do me a favor?" He paused to stare anxiously at his friends. He knew it was asking a lot, but he had to make the suggestion. "Linda and her ladies, they told me they were going to stay put and ride out the storm. She said they didn't have anywhere else to go, but I think she was more worried about looters taking everything she owned if the storm didn't. Anyway, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind checking to make sure they're all right?"

Chris nodded, more than happy to have an assignment with a specific goal in mind. His eyes narrowed in anger as he recalled the disturbing news reports of unchecked crime. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm in the mood to kick a little ass. You should be able to drop us off in the Garden District, where it's still dry. Depending on how things go with Linda and her ladies, we might just stay and help keep the peace."

JD had informed his friends that, like the nearby French Quarter, the land containing the area known as the Garden District was some of the highest and driest in the city of New Orleans. It was also the area of the city where most of New Orleans' higher-income residents lived. That made it an attractive target for thieves.

Josiah and Vin offered no objections to the plan. Ezra was more hesitant. "I feel it necessary to point out that we do not have a paying client, so any and all expenses will be paid out-of-pocket. Our funds are not limitless. There is also the matter of the legalities involved. If and when we take aggressive action, we would be considered vigilantes, with the potential to find ourselves on the wrong side of the law."

Chris held off from openly disagreeing with the lone dissenter. While he dismissed Ezra's first point, experience told him that he would do well not to dismiss the second. He stated, "We'll assess the situation when we get there. If the locals have totally lost control, I'm sure they won't be too upset if we start shooting bad guys. If there is someone in charge, we'll ask for permission before we start shooting."

Ezra offered no further arguments during the ride.

When they arrived at the airport and began to distribute their mission gear, Ezra handed a bulky phone pack over to Buck. "I recommend that you take one of the satellite phones, while I keep the other."

Buck nodded. "Yeah, I don't figure the city will be getting phone service back any time soon."

Buck met with the owner of the helicopter to finalize their deal. When the man discovered that Buck wanted to rent the chopper in order to assist with the Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts, the owner generously waived the rental fee as long as Buck was willing to pay for the fuel. They shook hands on the deal, and Buck filed his flight plan for New Orleans and the Garden District.

Although the worst of the hurricane was over, Buck had to work to control the helicopter as it was buffeted by frequent wind gusts. As the helicopter took another sharp dip akin to an elevator in free fall, Ezra manfully swallowed back his nausea. It seemed to take forever, but Buck leveled out their flight. Ezra prayed that he would be able to complete the flight without vomiting in front of his fellow passengers.

Oblivious to his friend's discomfort, Buck grinned and declared. "Now that's what I call a ride!"

Ezra decided then and there that if he did vomit, he would make sure that he did it in Buck's general direction. To Ezra's relief, his earlier meal remained in his stomach during the remainder of their bumpy ride.

Buck was glad that the wind gusts died down as he brought the helicopter in for a landing. When JD asked where they were going to land, Buck explained, "The nice thing about using a helicopter instead of a plane is that I don't need a runway. With any luck …" Buck's words trailed off as he concentrated upon a visual search of the immediate area. He knew that the Garden Hilton Hotel had a helipad on the roof. What he didn't know was whether or not the storm had rendered the helipad unusable. To Buck's relief, the roof appeared to be relatively clear of debris. The only worry the pilot now had regarding his choice of landing site was the possibility that the roof might be less sound than it appeared to be. There was a remote chance that the roof might have been damaged by wind and rain to the point that it would not support the weight of a helicopter. Buck shared his concern with his friends.

"Uh, guys, I know the roof looks pretty solid, but I'd rather not try to land, just to be on the safe side. I figure I'll hover a bit and drop you off."

Ezra's eyes widened in dismay. "Of course. We don't know if the roof will support the weight of three men, let alone a helicopter."

Chris nodded in agreement. "I'll go first, and rappel down to check it out." He quickly disembarked while Buck maintained a steady hover. Chris slogged through the standing puddles of water and determined that the roof appeared to be intact. Chris gave the 'OK' signal, and Vin and Ezra joined him by the simple expedient of stepping through the open door, tether no longer needed. The three men moved away from the helicopter, and Chris waved an arm to send Buck and JD on their way. They paused to watch as the helicopter took off in the direction of Arabi and their missing friends.

The helicopter's engine faded to a distant rumble while they turned their attention to the hotel's rooftop entrance.

Chris pulled at the door's handle, not surprised to find the door locked. "Ezra?" Ezra was already in motion, lock pick at the ready.

Fortunately the lock was an old one, and Ezra was able to easily defeat the mechanism. It took less than a minute for the team to enter the interior of the hotel. It was dark and stuffy, with no power to run the lights, air conditioning, or elevators. They headed for the stairwell.

Vin gripped his flashlight tightly, his sweat-damp palm making the task more difficult as they made their way down the darkened stairwell. Vin tried to ignore the little voice in the back of his mind that kept reminding him that the enclosed space was small, dark, and cramped; the voice insisted that the further they went, the smaller the space was getting, and if he remained in the stairwell it would eventually collapse and suffocate him.

Vin was sweating profusely. His shirt stuck uncomfortably to his torso, his pants chafed with every step, and his breathing grew more rapid despite his best efforts to remain calm. He needed to get the fuck out of this stairwell. He tried to distract himself by listening to Ezra's complaints.

"Really, you'd think that a hotel that catered to the upper class would include amenities such as emergency lighting." He paused to wipe at the sweat rolling down his brow before it could drip into his eyes. "Please don't remind me how many stories this hotel has."

Chris spoke up, trying to relieve a little of the oppressive atmosphere. "Eighteen."

Ezra sarcastically replied, "Thank you so much. It's a good thing I haven't been counting flights of stairs, as I would hate to discover how little progress we've made."

Chris spoke again, supplying the answer to Ezra's unasked question. "We're more than halfway down. Only six more floors to go."

Vin was relieved to discover that they'd come farther than he'd thought. He'd tried keeping track of the steps but in his anxiety he'd lost count, and he didn't think that they'd traveled even half the distance.

It took far longer than any of them may have wished, but they eventually reached the first floor lobby. After the darkness of the stairwell, the lobby area was surprisingly light. They soon discovered why. Looters had already visited the hotel, removing boards from the doors and windows.

Chris shook his head as he observed the damage they had wrought.

Vin did not linger in the lobby, giving it a cursory glance as he hurried out into the blessed light of day. He stood in front of the hotel, bent forward supporting himself with hands on bent knees while he gasped for air.

Ezra remained in the lobby with Chris as both men silently agreed to give Vin a moment to regain his composure. Both men were well aware of their friend's claustrophobia. As hot and uncomfortable as they'd found the journey down the stairs to be, they knew that it had to have been ten times worse for Vin.

Chris noticed that both hammer and nails had been left behind on the reservation desk when the building had been evacuated. He stated, "While we're here, how about we put these boards back up?" It was more of an order than a suggestion.

Ezra was not a fan of menial labor. He had to ask, "Is that really necessary?"

Chris reminded him, "We're here to help. We might as well start now."

Ezra knew that this was an argument he would not win. He gave a sigh of defeat and began to walk toward the discarded boards. Together, he and Chris secured the building. Ezra looked at Chris curiously as he tucked the hammer into his belt. The team leader shrugged. "You never know. It might come in handy."

Chris turned to Vin, his eyes scanning over his friend as he performed a rapid visual assessment. Although paler than normal, Vin seemed to have recovered from his bout of claustrophobia.

Vin asked, "We ready to head out?"

Chris nodded. "Let's go." The three men began to walk in a northerly direction, toward the Uptown area. They appreciated the fact that Buck had chosen the Hilton as a landing site. The hotel was within easy walking distance of their destination.

Vin looked around, trying to take note of everything they passed, much as he'd done when he was a mere tourist. However, today's walk had nothing to do with observing the sights a tourist would want to see. Vin couldn't help but compare and contrast the changes from a mere … what was it, only four days ago? The laughing, happy crowds had been replaced with anxious, unshaven men and women in sweat-stained clothing with nowhere to go. The streets were littered with wind-borne detritus, and more than one building bore the scars of wind damage from the hurricane. Taller buildings with upper stories whose windows had not been secured with boards were surrounded by shards of glittering glass from windows blown out by the hurricane-force winds. Vin shook his head. "Man, it doesn't seem like the same city."

Chris silently noted the number of people who were obviously not tourists, but instead were native refugees from the storm. His statement was brief and to the point: "It isn't."

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD were silent as they viewed the devastated city from above. While watching the scenes of flooding on the news had been disturbing, seeing it up close and personal was appalling. Based on what Buck had seen so far, some seventy-five to eighty percent of the city was now under water. Except for the relatively high ground of the French Quarter and Garden District areas, there were no more streets to been seen. They had been replaced by lakes and canals with buildings peeking out as silent tombstones marking where people once lived. The closer they got to Arabi, the higher the water levels rose, with only the top floors or roofs of buildings visible above the level of the invading sea.

JD was having difficulty in fulfilling his role as navigator. Many of the landmarks that should have been visible were hidden in the murky depths of the water.

Buck anxiously asked, "Am I heading in the right direction?"

JD looked frantically between the GPS locator and the map and unfamiliar terrain. He frowned, then stated, "Turn right 5 degrees." He paused while Buck did so. "Okay. I … yeah, now we're good."

He paused in his navigation as something on a nearby rooftop caught his eye. "Oh my God. Buck! At four o'clock! There's people up on that roof!" JD became more agitated when Buck did not alter their course. "Buck! Did you hear me?"

Buck sternly replied. "I heard you. I saw. And those folks looked pretty secure where they're at." He continued, "So do those folks over there on that roof, at six o'clock. And that fella over there, at seven."

They passed over house after house, a disturbing number of dwellings occupied by people waving at them from upper story balconies and rooftops. Half in prayer, half in awe-stuck disbelief, JD exclaimed, "Jesus!"

JD could hear the pain in his friend's voice as he explained, "I gotta put Nathan and Josiah first. We don't leave a man behind. Once we get them out, believe me, we'll be back to get as many of these folks as we can carry out of here."

JD couldn't stay still. "Where's the National Guard? The Coast Guard? FEMA? Fuck, I can't believe we're the only ones out here!"

Buck pointed out, "We ain't. The air isn't the only place you should be looking. If you look in the water, it's not all debris. Some of what's down there is moving."

JD squinted and stared through the helicopter's windscreen. After a minute, he nodded as he picked out one boat, then another, and another. "Yeah. Okay. You're right." He added, "I'm sorry. My eyes are going crossed from staring at these maps. It's just … there's people everywhere, and not nearly enough help!"

Buck did not disagree. "I know what you mean."

Buck chewed worriedly on his lower lip. His thoughts echoed JD's. Where the hell was all the help that was so obviously needed? Buck finally spoke in an attempt to reassure himself as well as JD. "I'm sure we're not the only chopper out here." He tilted his head toward the console and directed JD, "See what you can find on the radio. Check the chatter."

JD tuned the radio to the emergency channel and was greeted by nonstop chatter. He puffed out a relieved breath of air. By the sounds of it, a massive rescue effort was underway.

Buck turned on his mic and identified himself by call letters and location. "I'm checking in from Arabi. I'm gonna be picking up a few stranded folks. I don't want to get in your way or backtrack somewhere you've already been. That being said, I'd like to help in search and rescue. Just let me know where I can refuel, and I'll take on part of the search grid."

The Coast Guard thanked Buck and proceeded to give him additional information. The helicopter staging area was set up at Louis Armstrong International Airport, just north of the French Quarter. Rescuees who required medical care would be able to receive it at the airport's temporary hospital facility. Before signing off, the dispatcher added a personal note. "Thanks. We can use the help."

JD couldn't help but add a silent comment: "That's an understatement."

Buck made additional plans as they neared Uncle Ray's home. "If Nathan, Josiah, and Uncle Ray are home, they should come out when they hear the chopper. If they don't, then I'll hover and drop you off, so you can check out the place and make sure no one's home."

It was difficult for Buck and JD to figure out which of the houses belonged to Uncle Ray. There were no street signs; in fact, there were no longer any streets. The single story homes were no longer visible. The two story homes could be seen as rooftops above the high water. They hovered in a six-block area where they calculated the house was. More than one person could be seen waving from roofs and upper story windows. Fortunately, JD recognized one of the waving figures as Nathan. "There! At four o'clock!"

Buck turned in the indicated direction, then announced, "I got him!"

JD tethered himself to the helicopter, then opened the door once Buck was in a holding pattern over the roof. With JD's assistance, soon Uncle Ray, Nathan, and Josiah were safely in the helicopter.

Nathan commented, "We were going to wait for the Coast Guard, but you'll do." He grew quiet as they flew over flooded streets and passed house after house with stranded people awaiting rescue. Although he'd suspected that the entire city was flooded, seeing the truth was an emotionally painful reality. His somber reflection was interrupted by Buck.

The pilot explained, "The Coast Guard told me to drop y'all off near Center City. The Superdome is full up, so they're sending folks on to the Convention Center. After I drop you off, I'm gonna go back and pick up everyone I can. Too bad this bird only holds five people."

They were not quite halfway to their destination when Nathan announced, "We gotta go back."

Buck replied, startled, "What?"

Nathan instructed. "Turn around. I gotta go back and help."

JD snapped his fingers as he figured out what Nathan was referring to. "Uncle Ray's boat!"

Josiah gave a tired smile. Finally, there was something he could do in the face of this unimaginable disaster. He declared, "You're not going without me."

Nathan shook his head. "You're forgetting about your ribs.."

Josiah disagreed. "I'm not forgetting anything. The ribs are the least of our worries. There's no way I'm sitting tucked away in the Convention Center while people are dying a few miles away." He continued to provide reasons for his participation. "You need someone my size to run interference in case someone tries to hijack your boat, or people panic and overload the boat and swamp it."

Nathan's medical knowledge argued against Josiah's plan, but his past experience with the man overrode any objections Nathan might have raised. He knew that it would be a waste of breath to argue, so he amended his previous statement. "Me and Josiah need to go back."

The chopper was already turning around as Buck replied, "Okay."