Thursday, September 29, 2005

Charbonnet cousins found!

The following article in The Advocate was forwarded from a new friend who lives in Miami. One of the miracles of communication born of these magical times. What a gift!

Louis Charbonnet knelt during Mass six days after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in New Orleans and prayed, "Lord, I really need to get my animals out. Please help me."

Charbonnet, who owns Mid-City Carriages -- the largest mule- and horse-drawn carriage business in New Orleans -- prayed for a way to rescue an employee and 23 horses and mules still trapped near their flooded barn at North Robertson and Lafitte streets in New Orleans.

"As soon as my prayer was over, I felt my cell phone ring," said Charbonnet. "It was the state veterinarian telling me to get my trucks and trailers ready; they were going to let me go in and get them.

"I couldn't believe it," Charbonnet said.

For 15 years, Charbonnet, his wife, Simone, and daughter, Kim, have owned the carriage business -- providing tourists mule-drawn carriage tours of the French Quarter, transporting brides in horse-drawn carriages to weddings or caskets bearing bodies to their final resting places.

The horses and mules are a staple, a part of New Orleans lore. Before Katrina they were seen with colorful flowers attached to their manes or straw hats cocked over their long loopy ears trotting down Bourbon Street pulling a carriage of tourists absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of the Big Easy. Sometime the mules and horses were lined up in front of St. Peter's Square, a back hoof cocked while drinking out of the equine community water trough waiting for their next group of tourists.

But on the Saturday before Katrina pummelled New Orleans, parades and tourists were far from Charbonnet's mind. Instead, he was thinking of his 48 mules and horses.

"Since there's no place for me to take the animals, we usually ride the storms out," Charbonnet said. "But I went home Saturday night and about midnight I saw the weather report and realized this storm was going to be worse than usual and decided to get them out."

By early the next morning, Charbonnet brought his trucks, trailers and borrowed a few more, but still there was room for only 25 mules.

"We were headed towards Hattisburg, (Miss.) but after we started I found out there was no room for them there, so I headed towards Baton Rouge," Charbonnet said. "My brother has some property on Pecue Lane and he told me I could put them there."

Because so many people fled the storm on the last day, it took 12 hours for Charbonnet's caravan to reach Baton Rouge.

Riding out the storm with Mid-City's remaining 23 mules and horses at the barn on the outskirts of the French Quarter were long-time employees Lucien Mitchell Jr., Darnell Stewart and Fabian Redmon.

"We made it pretty well through the hurricane," Mitchell said. "But on Tuesday, when the levees broke,the water started coming up fast in the barn and I knew we had a problem."

There was Miss Pierre, a brown mule; Gorilla, a large sorrel Belgian horse that behaves best when he's with Bear, a Percheron. There were Baby and Sugar, two other Belgians that work as a pair. Mr. Big, Howard, and Winston, were among the horses and mules left with Mitchell.

"There's a little park with playground equipment called Leimann's Park near the barn," Mitchell said. "It's on high ground, but we had to swim with the horses and mules to get there because the water came up so fast.."

By twos and threes, Mitchell, Redmon and Stewart swam with the horses and mules to high ground. They all made it.

By the second day, Redmon was evacuated. On the third day Stewart hurt his foot and was flown to Texas for treatment. That left Mitchell with 23 horses and mules.

"Our cell phones didn't work, so I knew the boss would come to get us. I just didn't know when," Mitchell said.

Each day, Charbonnet tried to get clearance to get back to the city.

"But each day I was told it was too dangerous, too many shootings and I was told I couldn't go in,," Charbonnet said.

For Mitchell, it was difficult handling all those horses and mules by himself.

"I love these animals and I wasn't going to leave them. But sometimes they would try to drink that filthy water, or they'd get loose and run off," he said. "I was dragged through the water by one of them, but I finally got him calmed down and brought back."

Each day, Mitchell rode Fidel, an Arabian horse, to get feed stored in the barn's loft, and clean water for the herd.

"I carried the water on my shoulders," he said. "By the third day, I ran out of food and water for me."

Mitchell met eight other people stranded by the storm living under a makeshift tent. They helped him with the animals and offered him food.

"It was sad," he said. "But still I had to keep the others alive."

Meanwhile, after six anxious days, Charbonnet finally received the clearance to go in, only to be stopped once more.

"They told me I needed an escort and there wasn't anyone available," said Charbonnet, a former state representative. "This was my neighborhood. I knew where I was going and they finally let me leave."

Charbonnet, with trucks and trailers, arrived at the Orleans Avenue exit on Interstate 10 on September 4.

"I spotted them and I thought, 'Hallelujah," Mitchell said. "I was so happy."

Charbonnet began backing down the ramp.

"I used one of the larger trucks to drive through the water to the park that was like an island now and there they were. After eight trips, I got all of them out and loaded onto trailers," Charbonnet said.

When they finally arrived at the Lamar-Dixon fairgrounds in Gonzales and opened the trailers, Charbonnet found that one of the horses, Mr. Big, had died. And shortly after unloading them, Winston, another horse, died.

"Howard and Mr. Big were a team,' Mitchell said. "Howard just keeps his head down and stays facing the corner of a stall. I know he misses Mr. Big."

But even with the deaths of his animals, Charbonnet considers himself lucky.

In the next few days, he plans to finish sending the mules and horses to a farm in Tennessee.

"And don't worry," Charbonnet said. "We'll be back. You'll see the carriages again. I just know it.

Note: I've since tried to place call to Mid City Carriage in New Orleans -- have left messages but have not yet made contact. But this story -- plus my still vibrant memories of the New Orleans that was -- surely must justify bringing back all those who can begin the process of reconstructing what once was. There's a precious legacy here. I pray we don't sacrifice that to some Stepford-type generic future.

(Thanks, Marvin.)

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