Canal Street By Canoe

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TIME reporter Kim Humphreys paddled down a flooded Canal Street yesterday with a couple on a mission to rescue their cats. Here's her report:

The door to Laurie's second-floor apartment had been broken open, and we weren't sure what to do. I had just canoed down Canal Street from City Park to Mid City with Laurie and her boyfriend Will on a mission to rescue three of their cats, plus two more belonging to a friend and whatever else they could salvage from their drowned apartments.

The trip down Canal was surreal; we floated over one of the city's main arteries, the murky water varying in depth from inched to more than 10 feet. At times we found ourselves paddling over the tops of pickup trucks. Looking down into the muck to avoid hitting cars and up to maneuver around low hanging power lines and tree branches, we came upon a flatboat filled with law enforcement officials, who were skeptical about our presence, but reluctantly allowed us to continue. Above us a steady stream of helicopters circled, patrolling the area from the air.

We continued paddling down Canal Street, occasionally seeing people on their second-story balconies who declined our offers of rescue. And then there we were, at Laurie's apartment, facing—what? Frightened refugees? Armed squatters? A ransacked home? We went inside.

Someone had been staying there. There were garbage bags with someone's clothing and a seat cushion. Fearful that the squatters may still be lurking, we crept through the front room and down the hall. Once we were sure there was no one inside, Laurie began to feel angry and violated. Then she saw an envelope. It was a letter from an older woman who lived across the street. In the note she apologized profusely for entering the apartment and for having used the restroom. She said she was forced to abandon her place after the storm and swim in six feet of water to reach higher ground. When rescuers found her, she fed the cats and left to be transported to a location near the Superdome, where she could swim and wade to safety.

It took us about 15 minutes to find Laurie's cats. They were huddled under her claw-foot tub and they were reluctant to come out, even after being alone for a week. We finally corralled them, and left.

On our way to the next stop we heard a sudden series of pops, and simultaneously we ducked, fearing gun fire just around the corner. We were now on a side street and there were no other boats in sight. Will reassured us that it was just a helicopter propeller backfiring. When we reached Laurie's friend's house the water filled half of the first floor. The apartment was on the second floor and could only be accessed by the balcony window, which we couldn't reach, or by going through the common front door, and another door at the top of the interior stairs. We didn't have a key for either one, so Will used the broken fence board paddle to break the glass in the beautiful, antique hand-carved mahogany door.

After more than an hour of balancing at the front of the canoe to hack and kick at the door, Will finally got it open. He retrieved the two cats and the owner's wedding ring, then grabbed some clean clothes and got back into the canoe. Nearly four hours after we met at the water's edge, we were ready to paddle back to our cars.