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August 29th, 2008
05:01 PM ET

When 911 couldn't save Biloxi... The call I'll never forget

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/29/art.katrina.rolands2.jpg caption="CNN's Ted Rolands on assignment in New Orleans"]

Ted Rowlands
CNN Correspondent

About a week after the hurricane, we did a story on 911 operators in Biloxi, Mississippi, who had to tell people calling for help there was nothing that could be done.

Listening to a recording of some of those conversations is something I'll never forget; one call in particular.

The calls had been recorded on an old reel to reel machine, Cheri Hovecamp the 911 supervisor went through some of the tapes with us. The operators were getting flooded with desperate callers asking to be saved.

"Go to the roof" they'd say, "give me your address and we'll come get you as soon as the storm dies down"

For hours operators listened to plea after plea. "Can't you send a boat?", asked one man who said his family was on top of an SUV in his garage with the water still rising. "You have to save us" screamed a women who said she had four children. Some callers, realizing they couldn't be saved, gave the names of their next of kin asking operators to pass along thier "good-byes".

We listened to call after call, hearing the desperation and fear in the voices and the anger as operators had to say no.

Then came the call I'll never forget.

The high pitched voice was saying something about water, but because of a bad cell phone connection it was hard to know exactly what the caller was trying to say. "Ma'am we can't send anyone right now we're in the middle of a Hurricane" said the dispatcher, "do what you have to do to save your life".

Then the high-pitched voice started to clear up, and we realized it was a child.

Here is a partial transcript of that call which I have saved:

Dispatcher: "Where are your parents?... What's your name?"

Caller: "Eric"

Dispatcher: "Eric... can you hear me?"

Caller: "come get me now"

Dispatcher: "there is no one to come get you... Eric can you hear me? Do you understand?"

Caller: (unintelligible)

Dispatcher: "we can't come get you.. Can you hear me?"

Caller: (unintelligible)

Dispatcher: "Eric can you hear me.. You have to do whatever it takes to save your own life"

Caller: "you come get me now"

Dispatcher: "we can't come get you until after the storm.

Caller: (unintelligible)

Dispatcher: "we can't come get you.. Eric can you hear me? "

Caller: "you come get me now!!"

Dispatcher: "No"

Caller: "No?"

Dispatcher "No"

Whatever that little boy could hear or understand to that point I don't know, but it was clear in his voice when he heard "no" he knew. Imagining what he must of felt is something I'll never forget.

Everyone in the room, myself, a CNN photographer, and two dispatchers were crying.

Because of the poor reception of the call the dispatcher couldn't get an address or even a last name from the child, they don't know if he survived.

Rescue crews had been pulled off the streets, the winds and water surge were too dangerous to attempt rescues. Many of the callers ended up dying.


Filed under: Hurricane Katrina • Ted Rowlands
soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. margaret

    why are most of these comments about New Orleans?
    Hurricane Katrina hit the MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST, New Orleans (God bless 'em) had a levy break. MISSIISSPPI GULF COAST was almost washed of the face of the earth. Unlike New Orleans, thanks to our local city mayors and our governor we were prepared or as prepared as one can be for the nations worst natural diaster. I feel bad for New Orleans, but let's not forget the MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST was hit by HURRICANE KATRINA. I was there, before, during, after and today walked from my house, one of the few left, down to the beach at hwy 90.

    May 22, 2009 at 11:22 pm |
  2. bob

    this is quite sad, i cant imagine the pain and sadness of the operators. Nor would i like to imagine the parents despair. I was there in the aftermath of katrina at bell chase JRB. I remember thinking on the drive in that it didnt look all that bad. To this day I have seen worse disasters on a much smaller scale. I have seen tornadoes level towns with no warning. What sticks out in my mind is the mind set of people who place blame not on there self but elsewhere. How many people died because they were not prepared, relied a goverment to take care of them when they would not take care of themself. I dont remeber any one in Jarrell tx, blaming the goverment when a tornado leveled the town and I dam sure dont wanna hear this time either. People should take some responsibility
    for a change.

    August 31, 2008 at 12:18 pm |
  3. stan

    It's funny. Most of the people who posted comments have said that others shouldn't be critical of those who needed rescue after Katrina. The people who stayed couldn't get out or didn't even know about the storm.

    Right now one of the top stories on cnn.com is all about the people who CAN get out of NOLA but WONT. One woman has dogs she doesn't want to leave. One guy said he cant afford to put himself up in a hotel (hello – shelters!) one couple don't want to leave again and rebuild.

    Seems to me that a lot of people are just plain stubborn and or ignorant – doubly so in light of what happened after Katrina.

    These people don't need rescue – they need a major dose of common sense!

    August 31, 2008 at 5:37 am |
  4. Brian

    Comments left here are from one extreme to the other. Some about compasion others are those of anger. One common thread that most share is the governments failure. A hurricane doesn't sneak up on you, it is coming in for days. To ignore the warnings of a potential catastrophie is ignorant. Is it possible for a storm such as this to be on a path towards you and the majority of people don't know? Is it they just didn't want to leave or try their luck. Who is responsible for ones luck running out? Or, being to poor is the reason I am a victim. Try this, move somewhere that is not in constant danger of hurricanes. Here's another good one, The hurricane is not what destoyed the city, when the levies broke that is what done the damage. Yep, all that water from the ocean just showed up on the other side of that levy by accident. There are many, some have nailed it down by the "common sense" entries. What it comes down to is that nothing is "my" fault, it is always somebody elses. The reason I lost every thing isn't because my luck ran out its because the government didn't think for me. It is somebody elses fault I choose to live in a city below sea-level that got destroyed by flood waters.
    Sorry, but I have no sympathy for anyone who is old enough to care for theirselves, being caught in a hurricane. A tornado yes, happens anywhere and anytime. When a hurricane forms it is know days in advance. Start blaming yourselve for the failure.

    August 30, 2008 at 5:03 pm |
  5. CHRIS buford ga

    TO nicole you are an idot.its not the fedral governments fault.its gov blanco and no mayor ray nagins fault.first nagin waited till the last possible minute to call a mandatorty evac.blanco did the same with the la nat guard.katrina was a week a way so people had time to leave.but chose not to the mentallity before this storm was oh my home survived betsy,camille, they don't care the majority of people in louisana only care about their beer,crawfish.hurricane gustav is coming to finish off what katrina left behind.new orleans is a broken toilet that you keep jigging the handle and the water keeps running. the louisana hurricane guidelines were not followed you had ray nagin screaming like an idot pleading for help 3 days after the storm ON THE PHONE.this state has always taught its residents to depend on the government.thats why i moved in 1998 and probably never move back i miss the food,family but there are no jobs.the quilty of life is poor people are fat. stop blaming bush the reason why it took so long to get there is it knocked out their communication,ways in and out of the city. this was the storm my grandmother always talked about if the conditions are right new orleans will flood.besides the levees we built to withstand a cat 3 not 5 storm.

    August 30, 2008 at 4:16 pm |
  6. Kiki

    Dear Ted:

    There is something very heartbreaking about this post in particular. As Lisa has mentioned, throughout our lives, we are all taught that when you are in trouble, you call 911. It is very heartbreaking to read the conversation between the boy and the dispatcher and the numbness that would overpower me when the boy was told that no help can be provided.

    Stories like this one is just one of the many that took place 3 years ago and although New Orlean has been fortunate to rebuilt itself with the help of the nation coming together, I can only wish that once again, American can come together and help New Orleans once again overcome this storm that is heading their way.

    I understand that the Government has done minimal in helping the residents of New Orleans prepare themselves for Hurrican Katrina however, we, too, can help in any way we possible can. Our nation seems to be as it's most compassionate after a big natural disaster and we were able to make it through and rebuilt what was lost. The thought of the same occurance might soon begin only exactly 3 years later is very devasting.

    My thoughts and prayers goes out to Eric and residents of New Orleans.

    August 30, 2008 at 12:51 pm |
  7. John

    Katrina was a terrible storm, true enough. No, I don't live in NO, I live in Southern Missouri. Here's the thing, Hurricaine's tracks are known at least a week out. The City and State had the resources to get the people out of the city if they had had a comprehense plan, they didn't, hense the chaos and loss of life. Especially in the aftermath when the thugs ran the streets victimizing the victims, so much for brotherhood. We don't have hurricaines, we have tornado's. NO warning or no more than a few minutes. Since 2005, no less than 1000 larger and small cities have been wiped of the map by these monsterous storms yearly across tornado alley. An EF 5 tornado packs winds in excess of 250 mph, they leave nothing in their paths and yet, all you get are passing blurb's outside tornado alley about them. , Pierce City, Mo, Carl Junction, Mo, Web City, Mo, Halltown, Mo, portions of Mt. Vernon, Mo, and Northern Springfield, Mo, all gone in a single EF-5 that struck the area in '05 This one storm wiped out everything for seventy miles along it's path and a mile wide and killed 105. These cities are now bear places along Mo., Hwy 37, every building was cleaned off there foundations. A National Guard Armory, constructed of very heavy stone blocks was wiped away. Only the concrete slab floor remained, 36 people using it as a shelter were killed. If there is anyone to blame for what happened in N.O., it was the Mayor and Govenor of La. They and they alone let those people down. They had a week to get them out and they chose to do little or nothing. A week is plenty of time to move folks out, even the poor can get on a bus or train. Especially if you tell them there is no charge, if they charge them that's a criminal matter. As for this 911 call, All I'll say is that some one at the 911 center dropped the ball, bigtime. Here, our deputies and other LEO's are out in the storms, taking calls for help, they don't go hide until the storm passes. We have had officers who got caught by tornado's. Some survived, some didn't. But they were out there doing there best to help folks. In Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, they don't take shelter, they take action, we learned along time ago, these storm's ain't going to take a break until it dies out. I hope the City and State authorities learned from Katrina, it is their job to provide for their citizens safety, then the Feds if need be. With luck they can get it together. The reference to 9-11, apples and oranges. NY has the largest police and fire units in the country, together with a huge population that turned out in droves to assist.

    August 30, 2008 at 6:05 am |
  8. Elizabeth

    As a mother of a 2 year old boy, this transcipt is keeping me up. I cannot sleep, I cannot eat thinking that a child turned where he had been taught to go for help and there was none. I cannot imagine the dispatchers, someone else's children and perhaps parents themselves as well, having to tell a child we cannot save you. Not knowing what happened to this child is indicitive of so much that America is losing. There are good people trying to do their best out there. They are the ones having to tell that child "no" because not enough other people are supporting them in their efforts. They are the ones sick every day for the rest of their lives because they couldn't do more. And yet the self-obsessed American culture rolls on with more concern about which designer dress someone is wearing or who's dating whom. I pray that someone, any well-meaning soul, at least found that child so that whatever happened they did not have to bear it alone.

    August 30, 2008 at 2:33 am |
  9. yvonne burkes

    I survived hurricane,not so much as a roofing tile lifted. I live in ocean springa ms. about 5 miles from gulfport. I never thought I'd ever live to see such destruction. The house sitting on the railroad that didn;t even belong in that neighborhood and the destruction of the biloxi- ocean springs bridge was just more than my emotions could take and I broke down in uncontrollable soul deep sobbing.Ever person standing there that day cried with me I will carry that memory to the grave with me. God please spare us.The end of this age is about over.The Lord is speaking to us ..........listen!!!!!!!!!!

    August 30, 2008 at 2:32 am |
  10. Annie Kate

    That poor child – I hope he survived. I can't even imagine how it felt on either side of the conversation but just trying to imagine it makes me so sad. To tell a child you can't come help him knowing that it probably dooms him to die had to be the hardest thing the operator ever did.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 29, 2008 at 11:08 pm |
  11. Sandra, Wadley Ga.

    Dear Ted:

    Thank you for reporting little Eric's despairing 911 call. Three years later, I too am sharing your tears and heartache. I cannot imagine listening to these calls and I know you will never forget the living and the lost. It is comforting to know preparations and life-saving precautions are being implemented far in advance of approaching Gustav. The good folks of CNN will never forget. Be safe and God Bless each and everyone. I am leaving for Nashville in the morning to see my son, who is attending Divinity School, and when I give him a big hug and kiss, I will say a prayer for little Eric.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:13 pm |
  12. Jessie

    Anyone suggesting that people could have left before the storm but chose to stay has obviously never had an empty bank account, much less right before a life-threatening emergency.

    The people who could leave New Orleans the day before Katrina hit all owned either televisions, radios, or telephones. Because the storm formed in a day the word didn't have time to spread. Some people in N.O. honestly didn't even know about Katrina. Those who knew about the storm and stayed anyway weren't being defiant; they just didn't have the means to leave. You have to have money to buy gas or a bus ticket.

    This is where the government should have stepped in. The reason people are angry is because the government didn't show up until FOUR days later – which is exactly THREE days after the news crews and volunteers managed to make it into the city.

    Please keep this in mind before you suggest that these people could have prevented their own deaths.

    August 29, 2008 at 8:22 pm |
  13. Lily

    "These stories are all sad but could have been prevented with an ounce of common sense." how about an ounce of compassion ?? good grief, your sensitivity chip is malfunctioning.

    August 29, 2008 at 8:20 pm |
  14. Lisa

    Think about it, we have taught our children since they we're old enough to understand that when they are in trouble call 911. 911 will help you when you are in trouble. I couldn't begin to imagine how both the child and the operator felt when No! was said. Let's all pray that this hurricane season is a mild one.

    August 29, 2008 at 8:04 pm |
  15. Mike

    The mayor of new orleans let 60 school busses get flooded when they could have been used to evacuate people but no one talks about that

    August 29, 2008 at 7:15 pm |
  16. Damien

    I was born and raised in NOLA and lemme tell u something that most people arent saying that is making me very P.O'd. Katrina was HORRIBLE, I left at the last possible second (second guessing on how bad the storm would get) and I ended up like all of you watching my people die and beg for help. This story brings tears to my eyes... it hurts all of US REAL New Orleans patrons. But to say that the Government didnt help because of MINORITIES of uneducated and ignorant! Wake up and see what this country really stands for. Its not minorities this country doesn't care about... its POVERTY! this whole race issue is getting to be very very old... either wise up or shut up. Weither you're black, white, orange, purple, or even blue....the only color that America cares about protecting is GREEN!

    With ALL OF MY RESPECT to the 9/11 victims, let me say that I find it devastating that you have over a week to plan for this natural disaster and virtually nothing was done to evacuate these people (Don't just blame Louisiana's state Government... if G.W. Bush can go to WAR without permission, he most definately can save americans lives here on our own soil) and when the horrible day of Sept. 11th 2001 happened, WITHOUT WARNING, things were handled and as many people possible who were able to be rescued were rescued A.S.A.P. Does it take a Hurricane to strike New York or Washington to actually change the way prepare for emergency???

    So to Kanye West, Spike Lee, and George Bush... Keep your mouths shut about NOLA; you have no real insight to what New Orleans is all about. You use race as a jumping off point to start every argument that u make public (Lee and West). (Directed at Bush and every other "casually concerned" American)...We are the definition of brotherhood, the heart of hospitality, and the origin of soul.
    It takes A LOT more than Hurricanes to kill our spirit. Long Live NOLA, BLACK AND WHITE! P.S. WHO DAT!!!!!

    August 29, 2008 at 7:03 pm |
  17. Brian

    Having been to New Orleans and spoke with the people who did survive, it is not as simple as "they should have got out". First, the freeways were so jammed that many people could not get out. Second, given that people have survived hurricane seaons for generations, they weren't too worried about it. In fact, the hurricane itself was not what cause all the devastation. When the levees collapsed and started flooding, that's what caused the devastation. Who could have predicted the levees collapsing?

    Sharon, you have every right to be anrgy. When you see the firsthand the suffering of these people and the government's lack of aid, it does make you angry. I know how you feel.

    August 29, 2008 at 6:53 pm |
  18. Lisa

    I lived in N.O. for 3 years and I have to say that some people living in other parts of the country really have no clue as to what it is like to live there. There are times I felt like I was living in a 3rd world country when I would watch the local news! Most tourist never see these parts of N.O. because they are outside of the French Quarter and Garden District areas. Yes, common sense is a part of it, but poverty is also a HUGE part of it. Most of these people that were stranded there had NO options! They depend on city buses to get everywhere. When the buses don't run, they either walk or stay home. The people who do own cars don't have any other place to go. They also don't have the extra money or credit cards to spend on gas or stay in hotel rooms. So when the government (local or national) doesn't step in to help, what would you like them to do?
    People in this country who criticize and put blame on the poor obviously never had the opportunity to live near these less fortunate. If you did, you would have a little more sympathy and be thankful that you don't have to live the same way!

    August 29, 2008 at 6:44 pm |
  19. Joe G

    "Just who pray tell are you angry at?"

    Our governments lack of help for these people is disgusting and pathetic. There is no way to reasonably justify that kind of moronic incompetence. Anyone who even tries is a mindless monster in my opinion.

    August 29, 2008 at 6:34 pm |
  20. Martina

    Watch the documentary 'TROUBLE THE WATER'!

    August 29, 2008 at 6:26 pm |
  21. Lisa from Louisiana

    I love when people say, just "get out" as though every person has reliable transportion and money in hand to evacuate for days on end. Could you pull your head out of your own experience for a moment and contemplate that not everyone has the experience of the world that you do, perhaps? There were people being evacuated from roofs in New Orleans who were afraid to get in the rescue baskets because they thought they'd be charged for the service, like an ambulance ride. Some folks don't have a tv, let alone a computer with internet to keep up on the latest iterations of the storm tracks and where they should go or what they should do. But it's so much easier to just blame people rather than have some damn compassion, isn't it.

    August 29, 2008 at 6:19 pm |
  22. Moe

    Wow. I can't imagine how I would react.

    August 29, 2008 at 5:57 pm |
  23. Nicole

    I wasn't in New Orleans and I am still upset about how the situation was not handled effectively. I can't imagine how survivers and family members must feel. It is terrible the the American government so obvious disregards minorities and people who live in urban areas. The government did absolutely NOTHING to help these people, American people. They stood stranded for ONE WEEK in New Orleans, LA. It takes the U.S hours to fly across the country to give away money to another country in need, but the U.S. did not use that same ambition and concern to help its own ppl. That is just a shame. From my bed in MO, I watched as newscasters said Katrina was coming and it was going to be a very bad storm, but FEMA stated that they had no idea about the severity of the storm. They had no idea that people were needing emergency. I watched tv everyday during that week, and almost on every news channel I saw people in NOLA needed help, why didnt they? That is FEMA's job. The U.S government did a absolutley horrible job!!! After a fe days the media began referring the NO residents as refugees. C'mon man! Just a week these people were tax payers, now the are refugees? In America?. It was crazy. There will never be an excuse fro the governments non-respose to that situation. It was a truse display of racism and classism. The ppl in government who were responsible for handling the situation she be ashamed!!

    August 29, 2008 at 5:41 pm |
  24. Sharon from Indy

    Ted:
    As a volunteer working in Mississippi and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I heard so many stories about watching children being washed away or watching a love one die in front of their eyes.

    Afterwards, I just became numb.

    Then I became angry.

    August 29, 2008 at 5:33 pm |

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