The Renegad Boat Brigade : Rescue Ops in New Orleans

Steven Wishnia Sep 14, 2005

Yvonne Thibodeaux (not her real name) and her new husband returned from their honeymoon just in time to evacuate their New Orleans home, whose roof was torn off by the hurricane. They spent four days working on a rescue crew out of Lafayette, boating into their inundated hometown to pull people out of their flooded houses. A week later, the couple was hiding from an arrest warrant.

Thibodeaux, a New Orleans native who works as a freelance writer and bartender, says the federal and state supervision was criminally incompetent. “People are dying in my city because they can’t decide who’s in charge,” she rages into the phone.

Her rescue crew would spend hours sitting at mysterious roadblocks when they were itching to head into the city. “We got eleven people out in two hours,” she says. “We should have been out there from morning till dusk.”

One day, a flotilla of 90 boats was turned back from the city. Another day, they were diverted to ferrying workers to an oil refinery in Chalmette. In another incident, she adds, a FEMA crew ignored a woman lying unconscious on a freeway onramp. “She said she thought I was an angel,” Thibodeaux recalls. “She started laughing when she saw I was a real woman, and she realized she was alive.” “Did you see the pictures of all the people on the Interstate?” she asks. “Did they show you the buses on the other side? It’s not that hard to rescue 2,000 people when there are 200 buses on the other side.”

Eventually, Thibodeaux says, rescuers started breaking the rules and going off on their own, dubbing themselves “The Renegade Boat Brigade.”

On Sept. 5, Thibodeaux says, her grandparents—who she had presumed were dead—called on a neighbor’s cell phone to say they were alive on a dry patch of land in the city’s Lakeshore neighborhood. She told the crew. One unit, tired of waiting at a roadblock, went off on their own to try to rescue them. The neighbors came, but the grandparents refused to leave, Thibodeaux says.

Later in the day, she confronted her supervisor. “I told him, ‘You have blood on your hands. People have died because of your ineptitude.’” She says he then told her, “We’re not allowed to have refugees here. You’ll have to go to a shelter.” She then called a local CBS affiliate.

Her boss responded, she says, by getting the Department of Homeland Security to put out a warrant for her arrest, charging her with personal use of federal resources. “He’s saying that I dispatched teams to get my family. And I didn’t. I didn’t,” she says. “We spent our wedding money on a chainsaw to cut people out.

“Do they hate New Orleans because we voted Democratic?” she asks. “Do they want everyone in New Orleans to die because it’s easier to let black people die than to rescue them?”