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Eleven days later, still in search of survivors

Mike Mahoney, 27, is one of those volunteers scouring New Orleans for hidden life, and finding it.

Published September 11, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - It's a daily ritual in still-flooded streets.

Men with boats head to the ends of interstate ramps and waterlogged avenues. They put in, motor, stop and yell.

"Search and rescue! Are you in there?"

Then they listen. If all they hear is silence, they start the engine again and the tedious search continues.

Mike Mahoney, 27, a professional diver from Baton Rouge, is one of those men. In nine days of searching for signs of life - open windows, lawn furniture, pushed out vents or as little as a dirty sock hanging from a window - he and his crews have pulled 214 people to safety, he said.

And still they had been finding people alive Friday, 11 days after Hurricane Katrina hit, 10 days after the waters of New Orleans rose. But just three were rescued Friday, and it is getting harder each day.

The attics to which victims retreated are oven-hot, 110 degrees or more, with the steam of floodwaters rising beneath them. Food, water and hope are dwindling.

Eugene Hudson, 62, yelled and pounded when he heard the rescuers' call Friday. He had been holed up in the attic of his pink one-story home on St. Anthony Street in the Gentilly neighborhood in northern New Orleans since Aug. 29, the day Hurricane Katrina rolled ashore. He ran out of food five days before rescuers arrived and the last time he thought he would be rescued was eight days earlier, when a helicopter hovered above him and then took off.

He didn't hear another boat until he heard Mahoney's crew hollering Friday.

"I sure appreciate y'all coming," he said as Mahoney, who has training as an emergency medical technician, wrapped Hudson's leg in an air stint and hooked him up to an IV.

Win Henderson, a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Saturday that the water rescue efforts continue at "full steam" with no reduction in force.

"We will not cease this mission until every person possible has been found," he said.

But as Mahoney's boat logged more than 11 miles through neighborhoods, he crossed paths with only three other crews. And house after house was unmarked by the spray-painted "Xs" rescuers leave after searching a residence.

"You know that this is just one that's been found - how many others are still out there, waiting to be found?" Mahoney said after Hudson's rescue. "We probably rode by 15, 20 people today."

In the 10 hours Mahoney's crew was out, helicopters flew overhead almost constantly until around 5 or 6 p.m. Some dipped down from time to time to hover. But their noise drowned out the voices of the rescuers calling out toward houses, hoping for a response back. And, the rescuers feared, the helicopters' noise drowned out the muted cries of the trapped who, by now, might be too feeble to respond.

One of the most frustrating parts of the rescue work is duplicated efforts.

Organized search crews split the city up into grids, motoring from house to house and moving on. But sometimes they forget to mark them.

Mahoney, a volunteer who struck out on his own after becoming frustrated working with FEMA, cut holes in roofs to houses with "Help" signs still in the windows, broke glass in attic windows where signs of life called to him. More often than not, the people were gone, help had arrived.

"We need more victims!" Mahoney exclaimed, sweat dripping from his nose. "Where they at?"

"We hope they're not out here," responding Allen Posey, a Baton Rouge attorney who had been volunteering for four days by operating the flatboat. "But if they are, we want to find them."

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