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Through Hell and High Water

January 18, 2006

Fran Simon
Michael DeMocker

Hell and high water. For Gerald Tilton, it was literally what he had to go through to survive Hurricane Katrina and retrieve the only thing he had left after the storm -- his Tulane University diploma.

tulwin06_tiltonTilton, a 24-year veteran of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board who graduated from University College in 2004, rode out Hurricane Katrina at Pumping Station 19, a solid, red-brick building adjacent to the Industrial Canal in the Ninth Ward. One of the Sewerage and Water Board's essential personnel, Tilton is a supervisor assistant in the drainage department. His job is to make sure things are running well, dealing with operational concerns, maintenance and personnel matters.

On Monday, Aug. 29, things were not running well.

"Water came over the floodwall surrounding the station. It filled the pits in the station, and the water kept rising and came within about a foot of the third level in the pumping station, which is raised about 15 feet high."

At the back of the pumping station, Tilton and three pump operators walked in ankle-high water, fearing they might be electrocuted if the water rose higher. They dismantled the motor and blades of a big ventilation fan to make a potential escape hatch. But seeing a vortex of swirling water beneath the pumping station, they realized it would be impossible to escape the building. They started bringing food, water, cell phones and medications up a ladder to the top of a crane, which might be the only dry space if the water kept rising.

The next day, the workers at Pumping Station 19 peered into binoculars and across the Industrial Canal to Pumping Station 5, located in the Lower Ninth Ward.

"I saw some of my guys standing on an elevated balcony in water up to their chests. I could see water rushing back out of the Lower Ninth Ward, so I knew there was a breach in the levee system," Tilton says. "It was a traumatic experience. I feared for my life and for the lives of the other workers. When I got a call from a supervisor saying we were on our own, that the Coast Guard weren't coming, that the National Guard weren't coming, and we could see the water rushing in, it looked like it was the worst-case scenario we had all feared."

Tilton and another man swam through the floodwater to the generator building next to Pumping Station 19, hoping to start the generator necessary for the pumps to work.

Two feet down in the dirty, foul-smelling water were valves essential to the pumping operation that had to be opened. So Tilton and another man dove in.

"Within 24 hours we were able to pump at 19, but it was fruitless," Tilton says, noting that any water pumped into Lake Pontchartrain would return via the breech in the levee. "We had to wait for the break to be fixed."

Eventually, the Industrial Canal breach was sealed and the Sewerage and Water Board was able to pump the floodwater out of the area. Then, only a few weeks later, came the threat of Hurricane Rita.

tulwin06_diploma"Pumping Station 19 was the only one running in the old part of the city and I knew how to run it. We had done a real MacGyver job to get it up and running, with spit and bubble gum," Tilton says with a wry smile.

It was more than a month before Tilton went to his home in the Hollygrove neighborhood of Carrollton to survey the damage there.

When he reached his home, Tilton had to climb over an oak tree leaning on the front of his house. He figures that his refrigerator, sofa, TV and other furniture had been floating in more than five feet of floodwater before falling over on their sides when the water receded. The one precious belonging Tilton retrieved was his Tulane diploma, still in its green folder, resting on top of his computer desk.

"It was a very emotional time for me," he says. "There was nothing else in the house I really wanted. I took it out of the folder, straightened it out, and put it on a clipboard in my Sewerage and Water Board truck."

Tilton now stays at the home of his girlfriend, Gretchen Weber, who has an associate degree from University College and is working on a bachelor's degree at Tulane. She put the diploma, despite its water damage, in a frame and hung it on the wall.

Tilton says the horrifying hurricane experience has put things in perspective.

"All my possessions can be replaced," Tilton says. "If it's meant for me to have again, it can be replaced. Life is irreplaceable."

Winter 2006

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000