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Volunteer Rescue Efforts Saved Many Lives In New Orleans

A week after Hurricane Katrina left most of the city of New Orleans under water, rescue workers continue to find people alive and stranded. VOA's Brian Padden recently went along on a boat rescue mission into the city.

Garrett Wilson navigates his airboat through the flooded streets of New Orleans. He is one of hundreds of volunteers helping with rescue efforts that continue a week after the hurricane.

Feeling compelled to act, Garrett says, “You just got to do something and I felt I have a tool that will help, more than other people have. And it made a difference. Our group moved between 2,000-3,000 people out. That's a lot of people.“

They are saving people, such as Lyle Sullivan who was trapped in her home for six days. “We were leaving on Wednesday to go to North Carolina on vacation for a month, and then on Tuesday the water rose and we couldn't get out -- within two hours we could not get the car out."

Most people have already left by now. The floodwaters in one neighborhood reach only to the first floor of homes.

Many of the stranded dogs will not survive but veterinarian Dr. Chris Algero has been able to rescue some animals. "We've been getting them out of clinics around the city. My technician is coming in a boat with cats. He stayed seven days and made sure they did well. We only lost a few. Thank goodness."

Many of the people who remain in the city are refusing to leave. Garrett and another rescue worker encountered Cleveland Gray walking in knee-deep water. At first he refuses to leave, saying that he and his neighbor have plenty of food.

A rescue worker offers to go back for his neighbor, but Mr. Gray says he will stay. Garrett tells him "Everybody's going to leave here in a week and you won't have no help. They are leaving."

Trying to convince Mr. Gray, the rescue worker reasons with him, "You're going to get sick and you are going to die in here if you don't come out." Mr. Gray concedes, "I'm going to see if my buddy across the street is still over there and we will both come out together."

Mr. Gray asks to stop by his house in what seems like a deserted neighborhood. He asks Garrett to wait so that he can pack a bag. Garrett is concerned that we are separated from the other boats. "If you hear some gun shots, we ain't waiting on nobody. You'd better sit down and hang on."

Cleveland does come out and is taken to safety but others in his neighborhood adamantly refuse. Garrett encounters a woman who says she’s not leaving New Orleans at all -- she will rather die here.

For Garrett Wilson the stress and devastation is taking its toll. Recalling the worst thing he’s seen, "A bunch of dead bodies that have been out there for a week, and the people, the delusion that it is going to be OK in a day or two. They can't get that through their head. I talked to a hundred of them who said 'leave me alone.' It's sad because not all of them might not die, but a lot of them are going to."

Professional rescue workers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA are now replacing volunteers like Garrett Wilson.

FEMA's Tim Robson says theirs will be a more organized approach. "The volunteers are not systematically documenting what they are doing. We grid it out, we have a certain grid pattern. It's very systematic. It's not duplicated effort. It a good allocation of assets rather than, we look at it as a shotgun approach. We never do that because you can't verify."

While FEMA's approach is more methodical, its people are just now arriving. Volunteers like Garrett Wilson have been saving lives for days.