On the 17th floor of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, Jennifer Frenette huddled in the bathroom as Hurricane Katrina howled outside. “You could hear the windows creaking. And when it got really bad it almost sounded like the building was breathing,” says Frenette, who was in New Orleans to attend the EMS Expo, but couldn't get out of the city before Katrina made landfall. “When it was over, I had visions of opening the bathroom door and me standing there, 17 flights up, with nothing else around me.”
As a member of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, Clinton, Miss., Frenette was in town to attend the association's annual meeting, which was co-located at EMS Expo. She works for Medical Reserve Corps in Boston, where she is, ironically, a regional coordinator for volunteers responding to emergencies. MRC is part of the Office of the Surgeon General.
EMS Expo was expected to end Saturday night, August 27, but the show was canceled Saturday morning as Katrina churned toward New Orleans. Frenette didn't have a ticket out of town until Tuesday. so when she called the airline for an earlier flight, she was told she'd be on standby. When she learned that she'd be evacuated to the Super Dome if she waited at the airport and didn't get a flight, Frenette decided to stay put at the Hilton. “I just resigned myself to the fact that I'm here, now I just have to outlast it.”
The 1,300 rooms in the Hilton were filled with tourists, employees and their families, and evacuees from the city. “There certainly were people of all races, of all backgrounds in the hotel. Hilton took in evacuees from the street as well as folks from the nursing home.” Not to mention people's dogs, cats, and birds.
She and several other people from NAEMT set up a makeshift emergency station on the ground floor. After the hurricane blew through, the EMS workers assisted people with minor cuts and bruises. Also, because the power was out, they helped in getting people up and down the stairs to and from their rooms. Hilton had set up food for guests in one ballroom.
After the storm on Monday, Frenette walked outside to survey the damage but was ordered by security personnel to return to the hotel. But she saw enough to know that the damage wasn't as bad as she feared. There was no flooding — at least not where she was — and only a few windows in the Hilton were blown out.
The next morning, a local news reporter, staying in the room next to her, came charging up the stairs while she was exiting her room. He had been around town reporting on the damage and told her the extent of the flooding due to the levee breaks. His front yard was flooded and he was leaving town that morning to stay with a friend in Atlanta. If Frenette didn't mind riding with a car full of cats, she was welcome to ride along. So around 11 a.m. Tuesday, they left. As she and her new friend drove away, the streets were eerily empty. In the coming hours and days, the quiet would be engulfed by despair, chaos, and tragedy. She had gotten out just in time.