NEW ORLEANS - When their homes began to sink in Katrina's floodwaters, elders in the quarter here known as Uptown gathered their neighbors to seek refuge at the Samuel J. Green Charter School, the local toughs included.
But when the thugs started vandalizing the place - wielding guns and breaking into vending machines - Vance Anthion put them out, literally tossing them into the fetid waters. Anthion stayed awake at night after that, protecting the inhabitants of the school from looters or worse.
"They know me," he said. "If a man come up in here, we take care of him."
In the week after Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, Anthion and others created a society that defied the local gangs, the National Guard and even the flood.
Inside the school, it was quiet, cool and clean. They converted a classroom into a dining room and, when a reporter arrived Monday, were serving a lunch of spicy red beans and rice. A table nearby overflowed with supplies: canned spaghetti, paper towels, water and Gatorade, salt, hot sauce, pepper.
At its peak last Wednesday, 40 people called the second and third floors home. The bottom floor was under water. Most of those taking up residence at the school were family, friends and neighbors of the poor, forgotten niches of this community.
As the days passed, most chose to be evacuated by the Coast Guard who, they said, came every day to help ferry out the elderly and sick, and to leave water, food and clean clothes for whose who preferred to stay.
By Monday, just 10 diehards remained at the school.
Disillusioned, maybe. Disoriented, perhaps. Determined, without question.
In the week after Katrina devoured the Gulf Coast they ate, slept and bathed here, aided by the Coast Guard supplies. Men slept on the third floor, women on the second, using blankets and cots they brought from home.
It all worked out according to the plan of Allen Smith, 55, a Persian Gulf war veteran known to the group as "Sarge." Before Katrina pummeled the area, he advised neighbors to seek shelter in the school.Sarge said he knew the school he had once attended would be safe and at least the third floor would remain dry.
That's what happened when Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans in 1965. Sarge, who was 15 at the time, joined his family and about 200 other people who used the school for shelter.
"I just took the idea from them," said Sarge. "And it worked."
So as Katrina made its approach on New Orleans, they gathered blankets and canned food, bleach and cleaning supplies, a radio and a good supply of batteries, and began moving their stash to the school. They decided to rely on the building's supply of paper towels and toilet paper.
In the days after the storm, the Samuel J. Green school also served as their base for helping others in the neighborhood.They waded through filthy water to bring elderly homebound neighbors bowls of soup, bread and drinks. They helped the old and the sick to the school rooftop, so the Coast Guard could pluck them to safety by elicopter - 18 people in all.
All the while, they listened to radio reports of the calamity at the Superdome and the Convention Center. They heard that evacuees were dying and left to rot. There were reports of looting, gunshots, rapes, and no food or water. "There was no way we were going down there, to be treated like that," said Sarge.
Life at the school seemed far more civilized.
Clad in a white apron and plastic gloves, Greg Avery, a 53-year-old photographer on normal days, scooped hot beans onto a plate. Sierra Smith, an 8-year-old boasting a head of perfectly combed ponytails, handed them out to her neighbors with a smile.
She had been Avery's helper all week - between card games of Old Maid and Crazy Eights with her grandmother.
As we spend months and years sorting out what went wrong, I certainly hope that we spend at least as much time focusing on what went right - and why. Humanity does not spring from government, it springs from within ourselves.