LIFE BEYOND KATRINA: Cajun couple rescues hundreds from flooded homes
BREAUX BRIDGE, LA (WAFB) - Watching the horror unfold on national television during Hurricane Katrina, a Cajun couple from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana was anxious to help.
Doug Bienvenu and Drue LeBlanc loaded their airboat and headed to New Orleans. WAFB reporter Cheryl Mercedes rode with them as they pulled hundreds of people to safety. She reunited with them days before the ten year anniversary of the storm.
St. Martinville native Doug Bienvenu sat atop one of the many airboats he uses to enjoy fishing and hunting the serene swamps of Cajun Country.
"We called them different names. Big Betsy. Big Bertha," Bienvenu said.
Thirty years ago, the sportsman had no idea the journey the stainless steel vessel would take him on August 29, 2005.
Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast and busted levees in New Orleans leaving everything in its path under water. Residents did everything they could to move to higher ground. For some, that meant waiting on rooftops and hoping someone would come to their rescue.
The next day, Bienvenu and his fiancé, Drue LeBlanc, were on the way.
"I can't see myself sitting at home in the air conditioning while people are dying," Bienvenu said.
Doug's instinct led him to the Jefferson-Orleans Parish line where he and Drue would launch their rescue efforts in New Orleans. Most residents had never seen an airboat much less understood its power.
"They couldn't believe it, the noise it was making coming down the roads. They were like 'what the hell is that,'" Bienvenu said.
As the couple cruised through the Crescent City pulling people from their flooded homes, New Orleanians quickly became acquainted with Doug's unique mode of transportation.
"Every time we heard the boat we'd say, 'Here he comes,'" Ann Nathan said.
Doug comforted them with stories of survival as he brought them to safety.
"Those people were floating on a mattress for two days. One was 80, and the other was 90," Bienvenu told one man.
Many of them were desperate to get out, but the couple could only do so much. As the sun would set over New Orleans, Drue remembered how difficult their mission would become with no electricity.
"It was dark and people were screaming for help, and we couldn't help them," LeBlanc said.
The couple would travel home to Breaux Bridge every evening and return with the sun to continue their mission.
"She was a soldier. She would not take no for an answer. She'd be the one getting up making sandwiches and said 'Let's go,'" Bienvenu said.
In four days, Doug and Drue rescued 1,140 people.
"I was writing down everybody's name, in case my boat went down. I was overloading. My sides were very low, and if that boat had sunk, I could have given explanation as to who was in my boat. That's how we came up with the number 1,140 people," Bienvenu explained.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued certificates to Doug and Drue recognizing their heroic efforts. Three years later, Doug and Drue shared their stories with the world in a book titled "An Airboat on the Streets of New Orleans."
Friendships grew from their experience. Doug and Drue visit them every August 29.
"Mr. Bobby and Ann Nathan, Carol Terrance. They ring out the most," Bienvenu said.
"I'm so grateful that they came to help so many people. So many people would have drowned. He and his wife are just like angels," storm victims said.
Doug is preparing for his annual visit to New Orleans. Only this time, Drue will not be at his side.
"She had kidney problems for over 30 years, and she fought hard," Bienvenu said.
Drue LeBlanc died on October 30, 2014.
"I really do think about that a lot, and I really do miss her dearly," Bienvenu said.
Doug said not a day passes that he does not think about his former fiancé, their life saving journey, and the people they met along the way.
"Every time I get in my airboat, I think about Katrina. Can you imagine putting all these people in here and all their stuff," Bienvenu reflected.
Doug has not been to New Orleans by airboat since Hurricane Katrina. He hopes he never has to, but if disaster strikes he said his boat is ready.
"If I had to do it all over again, I would. I wouldn't hesitate," Bienvenu said.
A documentary called Cajun Navy, which highlights Doug and Drue's experience, will premiere on Sunday, August 30 at UL-Lafayette in Griffin Hall.
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