Video: Those we met during Katrina

By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 8/28/2006 9:56:39 PM ET 2006-08-29T01:56:39

A family trapped in the Superdome
I first met Albert Bryan a year go in the Superdome before Katrina arrived, where we found him camped out along with thousands of other families.

At that time, he told us that he wasn't thinking about his house but his loved ones that were there with him. Like so many others who couldn't leave the city, Albert was told to come to the Superdome. They called it a "shelter of last resort." It turned into a volcano.

Albert Bryan (pictured here, with three of the eight members of his family) spent a week at the Superdome.
After we were allowed to leave the dome to report the news that night, Albert and his family remained where we found them, in Section 121, for a week, trapped in the heat, the stench and the violence.

I saw Albert again in November 2005, three months after Katrina. It was instantly clear that his time in the dome had changed him.

Williams: How does it make you feel to be back in this spot where we met three months ago?

Bryan: I know I’m a stronger person than I was before this experience happened.

Williams: So you figure, if you can survive this…

Bryan: If I can survive this, I can survive anything.

Albert and his family first relocated to San Antonio, where they wanted to put down roots. But even with a Master’s degree in social work, Albert couldn’t find a job.  Soon there was another victim of Katrina: his 16-year marriage.

"[There were a] whole lot of changes that we went through emotionally," said Bryan. "A marital problem just got worse."

The divorce was finalized month, and Albert is back in New Orleans. He lives in one of 19,000 FEMA trailers that still dot the city.  His is wedged between a transmission shop and a friend’s house.

Despite those hardships, Albert is back to doing what he loves most — helping those struggling with drug abuse.  He hopes to open his own counseling service this fall.

More than just another body
For those of us who were there, there’s one image more indelible than all the others: the bodies.  They were all someone's loved ones and they were suddenly SO anonymous—on sidewalks, in doorways, against a wall inside the Convention Center.

One of those bodies was 80-year-old Clementeen Eleby.  Her daughter Barbara says she was a devoted mother to the nine children she raised on a shoestring.  After a paralyzing stroke, Clementeen lived with her daughters.  But the last days of this woman’s life were hell.

As their neighborhood flooded — after their requests for help were turned down — the family fled, along with 25,000 others, to the Convention Center. What they found there was worse than what they left. The Convention Center sapped the life from Clementeen.

Barbara Eleby Lee, daughter of victim: The sad part about it is just looking for help. You couldn’t find anyone.

Clementeen died less than 24 hours after arriving at the Convention Center. Only then did help arrive.

Earline Eleby Coleman, daughter of victim: He said, "You want me to try CPR?" I say "No sir, just let her rest now. Just let her rest."

Clementeen Eleby was wrapped in sheets.  Her daughter Barbara and the rest of the family were forced to leave her behind and board a bus for Texas.  When they left their mother's body at the Convention Center, Barbara Eleby says she put her name and her sister's name on it, as well as her mother's name.

But when Barbara’s sister Earline returned a week later to claim the body, she was stunned at what authorities told her. 

Earline Eleby Coleman: "Why are you here? How do we know if we have your mother?"

Clementeen had become one of the 730 then unclaimed bodies in New Orleans.  Finally, in October, on what would have been her Mother’s 81st birthday, an exasperated Earline took to the streets outside the city’s temporary morgue to protest.

Three days later, Clementeen’s body was found at the temporary morgue, where it had been all along. Her daughters were able to bring their mother's body home. Clementeen Eleby is now buried just outside of New Orleans.

It was a small comfort for a family still reeling in the aftermath of Katrina.

"The silence of accountability about the suffering and death of so many in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina is deafening," says Earline Eleby Coleman.

A man in trouble
One of the most disturbing pictures we’ve shown in Katrina coverage is the videotape of a man in serious trouble.  A crowd had gathered. They were unable to offer him anything other than encouragement.

NBC News
Calvin Elpig suffers a seizure after Katrina in New Orleans.
Like so many of the horrendous scenes we came upon over those five days: no one knew his name at the time—or could tell us if he lived or died on that curb.

We asked our NBC Station in New Orleans, WDSU, to help.  They broadcast the pictures and soon received a call, and then a visit from the man himself.

His name is Calvin Elpig.  Born and raised in New Orleans, he’s had a lifelong battle with epilepsy, and during Katrina was hit by a falling tree — which left him with difficulty speaking.

“I had to sit down and it happened — I went and into a seizure,” he told us with some difficulty.

Until we showed him the pictures he hadn’t known how many people tried to help him.

“I want to say thank them and I appreciate that they [were] trying to help me,” says Calvin.

A year now after Katrina, Calvin’s life is virtually unchanged.  He’s homeless and struggling, and yet grateful to be alive thanks to the kindness of strangers.

A mother's desperation
Another scene that affected our viewers greatly showed a mother’s desperation at the height of the despair outside the Convention Center.

Lee Ann Bemboom, holding her son: Look how hot he is! He’s not waking up. Very easy, this is not about low-income, it’s not about rich people, poor people, it’s about people!

Nightly News
Lee Ann Bemboom and her son Jahon outside the Convention Center after Katrina hit.
It turns out her name is Lee Ann Bemboom.  She’s a single mother, worried that her baby Jahon was going to die, in the heat, right then and there.

Weeks later we found Lee Anne 90 miles away from New Orleans in the small town of Addis, La. Thankfully, her baby was happy and healthy again, and to her surprise, a long lost cousin back in North Carolina saw her on TV and offered to help.

A month after Katrina, Lee Ann landed in Wilmington, N.C., just in time to celebrate Jahon’s first birthday.  They moved into their own home provided by the government.  Complete strangers donated toys for her little boy.

But now, a year later, the promise of those early days is gone.  Lee Ann says she feels lonely and isolated.  Two months ago, her unemployment payments ran out, and the former waitress hasn’t found a job and doesn’t have a car.  She’s desperate for her old life in New Orleans.

"It’s been like being sucked up and put in a place that you know nothing about," she says. "It’s like starting over to the extreme, it’s very difficult."

Yet it’s a small sacrifice now that this once lifeless baby, is a thriving little boy.

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