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Once in a Lifetime 

It's been a year now. A year that's taken forever and a year already ...

There are the stories of the storm, and we have been telling them for a year now. Some parts have been polished and others forgotten, and we may be too tired of hearing them but we will never tire of telling them because Katrina was the chance -- the first for some of us, and the last for some others, and the only chance for still others of us -- to experience something unforgettable, to know firsthand that your life can be touched and changed irrevocably by something you have no say over, none.

And the people who had already run -- to Houston or Arkansas or Virginia or New York -- they have no real stories to tell of the storm, no stories of what it was like to stay, only stories of other places and stories of coming back to this incredible place.

One of the prices you have to pay if you come back is listening to these stories till you or the storytellers are dead, because you know damn well that their memories aren't going to let them alone until then. That's just the way things are going to be around here from now on.

Here's one now ...

Johnny Hanning is a jeweler who had lived for more than 20 years in his house on Roger Williams Street off Desaix behind the LSU dental school. Katrina put water inside that house, so much water that he had to put a stool on the kitchen table and climb up.

Johnny Hanning has been gimpy since boyhood and because of a leg brace doesn't swim very well. So he sat on the stool in the house on Roger Williams Street and waited for help to arrive.

It never came. After the days came and went, sores broke out on Johnny's legs and his mind began to see scary things that weren't among the scary things all around.

"One day I looked up into a blinding light and coming out of it were hundreds, thousands of blackbirds coming at my head," Johnny remembers. "I was losing it."

He knew then that he'd have to break for it. He tried to tie a couple of sofa cushions into something that floated, but no luck. Then, floating by on the street, an inflated auto tire. Manna from Heaven ...

Johnny Hanning climbed on and began flailing. The tire moved out to Desaix, then to Bayou St. John, then down to Esplanade Ridge, where there were dead bodies stacking up. And shallower water leading down to Holy Rosary church.

When Johnny got to the terrazzo floor of the Holy Rosary cafeteria, he laid down on his back, spread his exhausted arms and clung to the place like a flame clings to a roaring log.

"I felt like I was in heaven," Johnny says.

For almost a week, it had been less than heavenly around Holy Rosary, where Father James Tarantino and Father Denzil Perera were tending a small flock of between 12 and 15.

"I knew people would come," Tarantino says of his thoughts the night before landfall. "And if it was a bad storm, they'd need a priest."

The storm came, wind vortexing in the spaces between church, school and rectory.

"There was a covered walkway between buildings and you could have put out a lawn chair and watched the storm rage on either side of you. It was awesome."

The next day, water growing ever higher and fouler was lapping at the church's third step on Esplanade. Father Tarantino took to sitting on the top step and talking to passers-by, sharing news and rumor gleaned from his solar-powered radio/lamp/siren.

For days, the little group huddled around an idea, the idea they had food and water -- school had been well-stocked at the end of August for two weeks. But Father Tarantino wasn't too reassured. His party had some old-timers, including two over the age of 90.

In the daytime, the Holy Rosary bunch watched slow-sifting clouds of smoke from burning buildings stain the sky.

"As people in the neighborhood began to evacuate," Tarantino recalls. "Our folks didn't want to leave. They wanted to stay close to their houses."

Evacuees were generous. Richard Angelico donated a freezer full of seafood and the well-named cook from Lola's Restaurant, Angel, called to say, "Come get anything you need."

On Saturday, Father Tarantino decided to say Mass. When asked to ring the church bells, he replied that a lack of electricity prevented it.

"I've got a brass hammer at home," one man said. "I'll go get it and climb up in the tower and ring 'em by hand. It's very important that the people around here know that God is still with us."

The sound of the hammer-struck bells spread peace over a neighborhood needing some badly, but it called attention to itself. Some reservists showed up after Mass and ordered the little gang to make their way to Beauregard Circle to get choppered out.

Father Tarantino gathered the flock in the rectory. He had half a thousand of what Catholics call the Sacred Host. Everyone got a full glass of water to help their swallowing and then started consuming their Lord.

When the last host was gone, the hardiest of the Holy Rosary's parishioners, feeling full of God, gathered their few things and headed for their first helicopter ride.


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