Couple recounts stories of escape, reunion from aftermath: Chuck’s story

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2005

While Gayle Noland packed the car to travel to Long Beach, her husband, Dr. Charles &uot;Chuck&uot; Noland, archivist for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, went to the Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter to prepare as best he could for an approaching storm.

Neither husband nor wife knew what lay ahead for them, certainly not that they would be in danger of losing their lives as well as all of their property.

Chuck had been in Natchez only a day before, working with the Rev. David O’Connor, pastor of St. Mary Basilica, on a new guide to the famous Natchez church.

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Nearing retirement, Chuck had agreed to stay another year to complete projects, including the recently opened cultural center housed on the first floor of the convent. A small house on the convent property would be his and Gayle’s for the next year, as they were selling their home in Metairie in anticipation of moving permanently to Long Beach.

&uot;I went to spend the night at the little house,&uot; he said, recalling the night before the storm. &uot;I woke up at 3 in the morning and began to clean my desk. All of a sudden the winds began. I felt safe, but the wind blew a chimney down and broke the sprinkler system, and we had a horrendous downpour.&uot;

Not until policemen came to turn off all water to the building could they get the sprinkler under control.

With archives secure on the second floor, he began to think about leaving New Orleans, going to Natchez, trying to get in touch with Gayle.

&uot;Usually a hurricane comes there in a day, and is gone. No one foresaw the levee breaking,&uot; he said.

When that happened, &uot;things were getting crazy.&uot; He and a priest went to the nearby police station, struggling through rising sludge. The 40 officers at the station asked for Mass to be said.

&uot;These men and women were in tears,&uot; he said. &uot;They were so frightened. The lawlessness was just getting started.&uot;

One of the officers stood up and gave a talk on the book of Job, Chuck said. &uot;He talked about how Job had lost everything, struggled with God and with his neighbors. It was very moving.&uot;

The chaos and uncertainty about what was happening after the levee break was compounded by the inability of police and others to communicate, Chuck said. &uot;It’s one of the most striking things about this, the failure of communication. There were two land phones that worked, one in a house behind St. Louis Cathedral and another near Beauregard House.&uot;

The two young policemen who were staying at the convent worked long hours. &uot;They told us only one channel was open. Towers fell. Communication became finding someone and talking to them face to face,&uot; he said.

By Thursday morning, Chuck knew Gayle was alive. The young policemen kept telling us to get out. &uot;Then about 10 Thursday morning they told us to pack our bags, they were taking us out. Around 4, one of them came running in. There was a convoy of four or five cars. All we could take was what we could pile in our laps.&uot;

The policeman said he could take the small group sheltered at the convent to the West Bank. &uot;It was frightening,&uot; Chuck said. &uot;There were people on the bridge, under the bridge, and they obviously didn’t like the police.&uot;

The policeman dropped them in Algiers, near Holy Cross College and Holy Spirit Church. &uot;We trudged down to the church. There was no one there. Then the first of several angels arrived. She was a church member, and she opened the church for us and said we could stay,&uot; Chuck said. &uot;The second angel was a priest from the retirement home next door. They had rooms for each of us, running water but no electricity.&uot;

With a small generator, the host priest made a dinner of meat, potato and vegetable. &uot;He had TV. We saw what was happening,&uot; Chuck said.

The next morning, the host priests offered the use of a car. &uot;We piled in the car. I was greatly afraid of attacks on the car, but once we were on the expressway, we were OK.&uot;

By late Friday, Chuck had made the arduous journey to Baton Rouge and to Gayle’s brother’s house. On Saturday, they found gasoline and were able to drive him to Natchez to be reunited with Gayle, who had arrived a few hours earlier.

Like Gayle, Chuck remembers the goodness of many people during those frightening days of uncertainty. Whatever they had, they shared, even if it was just a phone line.

&uot;The other thing I’ll remember is the waiting as everything deteriorated. It really was a triple tragedy &045; the hurricane, the levee and the lawlessness.&uot;

He will remember the people of Natchez. &uot;They have been just wonderful.&uot;

He has visited seven shelters and found the people there &uot;amazingly fine.&uot;

Meanwhile, he believes the archives at the convent will be all right. However, he is concerned about the continued dampness inside all the historic and other buildings. &uot;New Orleans will be uninhabitable for a long time,&uot; he said. &uot;Our future is not the future we had planned. It won’t be the life we expected. And until we actually go back and see what is there, we just don’t know.&uot;