On his 29th birthday, Gabe Sage hovered over a city fabled for the drama, revelry and debauchery that historically unfolded on its crowded streets.
But the streets now were relatively empty, or they were covered by water.
Sage spent his birthday dropping out of a helicopter and helping anyone left in storm-ravaged New Orleans to get out.
One of two U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers sent from Air Station Astoria to help with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, Sage spent 10 days hoisting survivors from windows and off rooftops in Louisiana and Alabama.
Erick Lieb, 25, the other rescue swimmer sent from Astoria to help, spent his 10 days loading people into helicopters to transport them outside of the most dangerous areas.
Now back at the air station, the two say they're lucky they made the trip with low expectations.
"It's never fun to see things like that," Lieb said. "But when you go down there expecting the worst, at least you're prepared for it. That makes it a little more bearable."
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans Aug. 29 with winds topping 160 miles per hour. The storm surge breached the city's levee system, sending a torrent of water into the streets. Nearly 1,000 people died in the hurricane, considered the costliest and most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history.
Thousands savedThe North Coast rescue swimmers couldn't keep track of how many people they saved.
Lieb helped to rescue about 150 people - about 100 in just the first couple of days - taking groups from places like the Louisiana Superdome to the airport and conducting medevacs, picking up individuals with heart conditions or chronic illnesses and taking them to safety.
Sage estimated that he hoisted about 80 people to safety.
The U.S. Coast Guard is credited with thousands of rescues in the hurricane's aftermath so far. About 5,000 aircraft flew rescue missions from a Coast Guard staging area in Mobile, Ala., according to the two rescue swimmers. But that doesn't include rescues from New Orleans and other affected areas.
"And that's just aircraft, it doesn't include boats," Sage said. "It's hard to keep track when you're stuck in that world."
Early in the trip, Sage rescued about eight people from an apartment building. From the air, it wasn't obvious that people were trapped inside. No one sat on the roof or called for help because the building's residents were elderly. Many couldn't walk without assistance; some couldn't walk at all.
"People had been feeding them to keep them alive," Sage said, adding that it was those people who tipped him off to the elderly residents in need of help.
Inside the building, some people lay dead in their beds. Sage opened doors and called into the rooms. If someone responded, he carried them outside, wading through chest-deep water, and helped them into a basket to be lifted into a helicopter. If no one responded when he called into a room, he had to move on.
On another mission, Sage smashed a window, cleaned out the glass and pulled seven people through it from an apartment building. The doorways were blocked with water and debris, so he stayed connected to the helicopter, suspended by a cord as he plucked survivors through the window.
The number of people who could be taken on each helicopter flight depended on the size of the aircraft - the Coast Guard's HH-60 Jayhawks are larger than the HH-65 Dolphins - the size of each person needing to be lifted and how much equipment was on board. In addition to search-and-rescue gear, helicopters carried food and water to leave for people opting not to be rescued.
Victims wanted to stayAnd many people didn't want to leave.
Lieb said he got a "few dirty looks" from people angry to be bothered, but "a lot of grateful ones as well."
Rescuers carried Mace and an ax, which could be used to break through roofs and doors or for self protection.
"It's frustrating to deal with that situation, but you have to put yourself in their shoes," he said. "In their eyes, the water might go down today or tomorrow. They don't have access to the news to know this is a serious problem and it's not going to go down."
Some people didn't want to leave without their pets. Sage rescued one man who had "made a home" in a school. About 40 years old, he had loaded his five toy poodles into a boat and paddled there, and he wouldn't leave his dogs. Sage told him he didn't have to and hoisted the six survivors into the helicopter.
Survivors accepting rescue efforts were sometimes upset they couldn't bring as many bags with them as they wanted.
"They lost everything as it was," Sage said. "But I had to tell them 'If you can hold it, you can bring it.'"
Rescuers couldn't tell people where they were being taken, because they didn't know.
Everyone asked that same question, Sage said, and he couldn't tell them where, "but it was going to be somewhere safe."
Lurking dangersPeople who didn't want to leave hard-hit areas often didn't understand the danger of disease that lurked in the waters.
Lieb said "every pollutant you can think of" clouded the water, including sewage, pesticides, other chemicals and debris.
"If you don't run out of fuel or water, you're going to die from disease," Sage told people choosing to stay.
He said his skin was "burning and tingling" after he stood in water outside of a Home Depot store, where pesticides and chemicals leaked from products in the store's aisles and out onto the streets.
People living in crowded shelters and dirty conditions are more susceptible to disease, he added, noting hepatitis, E. coli, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS were concerns.
Sage and Lieb will take periodic blood tests because of the health threats, as will the other 150 Coast Guard rescue swimmers, half of the agency's entire aviation survival technician force, who helped in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
Flood of help"The Coast Guard did a great job down there," Sage said. "One thing that stuck out to me was, for the severity of the situation, how quickly so many people got there and how well everyone worked together. There were at least 10 Coast Guard aircraft in the air 24 hours a day."
Lieb said the support provided by local donations of food, flashlights, clothing and gear was "outstanding," and he agreed with Sage that people cooperated well despite pilots having to dodge power lines and telephone wires so they could hover between skyscrapers.
"People were willing to adapt," Lieb said. "Everybody worked together really well."
The rescuers had just gotten back when 10 more people from Air Station Astoria left to help with Hurricane Rita.
"We basically said 'hi,' high-fived them and they were out the door," Gabe said.
That crew returned last week.