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Hurricane Katrina

Their savior in a silver canoe

He couldn't leave knowing there were people in New Orleans who needed his help. He was right.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO, Times Staff Writer
Published September 7, 2005


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NEW ORLEANS - Juan Parke spends mornings in his silver canoe, paddling to houses of neighbors whose loved ones are searching for them.

He spends afternoons in the water, dragging trapped residents through flooded streets to safety.

He spends evenings beneath a mosquito net in his second-floor apartment, listening to the drone of the cicadas, the roar of helicopters and the distant voice of the only other person left within a block of his house.

"I have an innate belief that no matter what happens, I will be okay," he said, explaining his decision to remain in New Orleans. "I knew people who would not be leaving, who could not leave without help."

So the 42-year-old computer consultant stayed. He walked around his block as the hurricane hit and felt the wind lift his 145-pound frame from the sidewalk. The next day, he rode his bike through the rising waters on Napoleon Avenue and figured Lake Pontchartrain was pouring in.

For people in the Carrollton Square section of uptown, Parke has become "Juan, the guy with the canoe" - a renegade rescuer and neighborhood hero, the funny little guy with an overgrown goatee, an orange pack of medical supplies and a cell phone that doesn't stop ringing with text messages.

Neighborhood rescuers have emerged all over the city. For them, New Orleans is too precious to leave in the hands of the search and rescue teams and National Guard.

They live in darkness, carry protective weapons and look out for others.

Ask Parke why he has stayed, and he paraphrases Shakespeare's King Henry V: "For those who are not with us will hold their manhood cheap."

* * *

The text message came at 10 p.m. Saturday. A son was looking for his parents on Neron Place, not far from where the streetcar line ends at Claiborne and Carrollton avenues.

Can you help? the son asked.

Who is this? Parke replied. Do I know you?

Glenn Carvin, 48, hadn't heard from his elderly parents since Tuesday. They had refused to leave the home they'd lived in for 30 years. Carvin's father uses a wheelchair. Where were they, the son wondered? Had dad fallen? Could mom lift him? Were they okay?

By Saturday, Glenn Carvin was planning to drive down from Atlanta to try to get to his parents' house. Then a family friend told him about the man with a canoe and passed on his cell phone number. All he knew was that his name was Juan and he was a nice fellow who had rescued other elderly folks in the neighborhood.

Carvin messaged back: I'm a son looking for my parents. Can you help? Address was 57 Neron.

Yes, Juan Parke said, I can help.

* * *

The man in soaking jeans with a gun strapped to his chest was yelling her name over and over: "Mrs. Carvin! Mrs. Carvin!"

He was a wiry man, about 6-feet-tall, hollowed out cheeks. But he spoke respectfully, offered to remove his gun, and said the words she wanted to hear: "Your son Glenn asked me to check on you, Mrs. Carvin!"

Ruth Carvin, a 77-year-old Newcomb College alum, came to the door in a white cotton nightgown. "Your timing is wonderful," she said.

Her husband, Jim, a political consultant to many local politicians, suffered a stroke years ago. The two of them had ridden out many storms. But now they were approaching seven days in the dark, six days without running water, five days without contact with the outside world. The black, rancid water was at the door.

Jim Carvin, 76, had always been a stubborn man.

"I survived two wars, the London blitz, and umpteen hurricanes," he told his guest. With 20 gallons of water, he said, the couple could last another three to four weeks. "And we've got enough liquor to hold us till 2006."

Still, Jim Carvin didn't shoo away his rescuer.

Candle wax drippings were on the floor. Batteries, Tabasco, Mardi Gras masks, papers, Kleenex boxes were scattered about their dining room table. Pringles cans and plastic cups wobbled on the floor.

"I'm going to get you out," Parke said. "I'm going to get you out to your son."

Parke lifted Jim from his bed and into his wheelchair. Ruth asked about her daughter's house a few blocks away. Parke went down to check on it, cleaned out the refrigerator, turned off the power and gas, and reported back to the couple.

If the Carvins had been rescued by National Guardsmen, Parke wondered, what would the scene have been? Where would they have gone? How long before they would hear from their family?

"That's a huge reason why people don't want to leave," Parke said. "They don't know where they'll end up. And the rescue crews come in and say, "You've got 10 minutes to get out.' And some people have been more traumatized by that than anything. If I can establish a rapport, I can usually get them out."

Glenn Carvin was reunited with his parents before sundown Sunday.

* * *

Parke started writing down their names after the first couple of rescues.

Miss Janet and son Howard needed help getting their elderly aunt and mother out. Mr. Roberts was running out of cigarettes, but truth be told, he was running out of medication, too. Miss Jenny, in her 70s, had been blown into the water during an attempted rescue by a helicopter and was skeptical of any further high-tech attempts. There was a lady who began having a heart attack as Parke arrived. Parke, a former emergency room technician, administered an IV and transported her to safety.

The Carvins were rescue Nos. 18 and 19.

When each rescue was complete, Parke would pass on his mother's phone number to the rescued and ask them to call. He wanted his mom to know he was fine. And he wanted his 10-year-old son, Deen, evacuated to Huntsville with his mother, to hear the stories of what one person can do for another.

"We'll figure it out," he always tells Deen when the boy hits a tough spot.

* * *

It's Sunday night. Almost a week after Katrina hit, helicopters throw their spotlights onto the watery streets, casting shadows over the flooded cemetery across the street from Juan Parke's apartment.

Parke lights tiki torches on his porch to keep away the mosquitoes. He pours himself a glass of wine and settles down on a cushioned seat.

He says he hasn't cried yet for New Orleans, his home for 15 years. He doesn't say he won't, though.

He was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Baker, La., but calls himself a New Orleanian now.

He thinks he's earned that right.

[Last modified September 6, 2005, 22:26:02]


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