How a Man With a Stolen Boat Rescued 400 People After Hurricane Katrina

Boat
This 24-foot fishing boat was used by professional bicycle racer Ken Bellau and a group of men from a halfway home to rescue over 400 people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Polly Mosendz/Newsweek

In New Orleans's Jackson Square sits a 24-foot fishing boat. The boat is in front of the Presbytère, a Louisiana state museum dedicated to history, and is part of its Hurricane Katrina exhibit. On its side, Ken Bellau wrote a brief but powerful message before abandoning the vessel: "This boat rescued over 400 people. Thank you!" He left his phone number, just in case the boat's rightful owners ever wanted to reach out to him and hear the story.

The boat had been stolen...but only technically, and certainly for good reason. Really, it had been borrowed, Ken likes to say, joking that just about everything was borrowed in the days after the storm.

When the storm hit, Bellau was in French Guinea on a bicycle tour—he's a professional cyclist—and didn't hear about the storm until Sunday. "My first response was that wasn't a big deal, we had evacuated the city five or six times," the lifelong New Orleanian said. By the time he got back to the United States, New Orleans was on lockdown and the damage had been done. Luckily, one of his sponsors had stolen his car—but again, it was for a good reason: "He stored it in out of town with new tires on it and a full tank of gas." Bellau's car was in Natchez, Mississippi and he was in Jackson. He had to bike to his car and from there, he knew it was a one way trip—the tank of gas would be nearly dry by the time he drove from Natchez to New Orleans.

"I came into town for selfish reasons at first—to check on my stuff and to get my cat. Everything I owned was in this little house. But I got there and I realized that my house wasn't flooded, just damaged," he recalls. His cat, Simon, survived on post-storm rats. Realizing his home was safe, Bellau took a brief ride around town, careful to conserve gas but curious about what Katrina had done to his city.

"I ran into some diabetic people who were not doing well and I told them to get in and we went to see if could find help until I ran out of gas. I could see helicopters landing by the convention center but once I got to the convention center, my car was overwhelmed with people jumping on it, begging me for a ride. I was able to back up and get them off. It was somewhat forcibly," Bellau remembers, his tone hushed and upset. "I didn't expect a scene like that at all. It was terrifying and it felt awful. I just couldn't help people."

As Bellau began to feel helpless, his girlfriend, now his wife, found a way for him to help people: She put his contact information on Nola.com and his cellphone quickly filled with text messages. "I was getting people requesting that I check on their cat, then cats turned into dogs and dogs turned into people. I was scribbling everything down, trying to keep track of what neighborhood it was in, to keep track of what I was looking for." Bellau wore camouflage and carried a gun—looking like a military man kept him from being arrested and allowed him to safely carry out rescue work.

"I saw a guy paddling in a pirogue, a cajun canoe. I stopped the car, parked it and I asked him what he was doing. I said, 'I need to check on some people,' and he said, 'Well, it's not my pirogue.' I made sure he saw the gun and I said, 'Well, I'm going to take it.' I'm not proud of that but I didn't have time to deal with someone checking on buildings when my phone was dealing with, 'Check on my grandmother,'" Bellau remembers. From there, he went down his list, compiled from the never-ending string of text messages.

Bellau passed by police departments and found they weren't "doing much." Though the police weren't out rescuing people, they had threatened boaters who were trying to—everyone was assumed to be a looter until proven otherwise. Rowing in his canoe, Bellau ran into a group of men in blue jeans and T-shirts on a 24-foot boat. They thought he was a police officer and he assumed they were firemen, and both sides assumed the other would provide protection the threat of the authorities. "We get a mile away and they realize I'm not a cop and I realize they're not firemen. And a cop had told them earlier that if they see them moving, they'll shoot." Despite the threat, the ragtag crew and their big fishing boat continued onto the next address on Bellau's list.

"These were all local guys, all residents of a treatment facility. They were all recovering drug addicts. I'm not sure if it was a VA recovery center or what, but they were all veterans," Bellau said of his fellow rescuers, who he's been unable to find since the storm. "They stuck to their ranking hierarchy. There were one or two in the Army, a few in the Navy and a few Marines. Allen had the highest ranking and he was the one in charge. They were working with military precision. You could tell from the look of them that they had had a hard life but you were confident that out there, they would not get any drugs."

But getting people on the boat wasn't enough on its own. They had to be able to take them somewhere. Later in the day, the boaters ran into a man, his wife and their pickup truck parked on a corner. "He would meet us at the corner every hour on the hour and take whoever we got," Bellau said. The truck drove hundreds of stranded New Orleanians out of the flood zone, and in one instance, when Bellau became discouraged by the rescue work, the driver's wife gave him a harsh but much needed pep talk.

Despite the flooding, the toxic environment and the unbearable heat, many New Orleanians Bellau and the men encountered were reluctant to get on the boat. "A lot of them took a lot of negotiations. They were hostile, they didn't want to come. I kept running into people who were sick. One woman kept saying 'I'm fine, leave me be, leave me be,' and she wouldn't come with me. She didn't make it," Bellau said. When he was attempting rescues on this own in the canoe, his approach was "fairly panicked" and "hurried." He described the situation as life or death. But when he joined the men in recovery, a softer approach was used.

"They were a lot more compassionate," Bellau remembered. Eventually, the men brought a preacher on boat, a man they knew from their time in the halfway home. Of the rescues Bellau and the men did with the preacher, Bellau estimates 90 percent were of African Americans. "The preacher spoke to them with compassion, he had more compassion for their fears. He would reason with them, he would assure them that they were going to a better place." In one instance, the group rescued four generations of a same family who were stuck together on a balcony. The oldest was a 98-year-old man who was a Mardi Gras tribe elder. "It didn't take any convincing to get him to come with us but he wanted to know where he was going. But we didn't know. I think even the preacher at this point was lying."

After the family was rescued from the balcony, the old man asked to check on his grandson. "He pointed and I thought he was pointing to a house but he was pointing to a body in the road. He had seen his grandson walking across the street. He stepped in a hole or got his shirt caught on something and he never came up. We motored over there and everybody cried and said some prayers. And then we moved on. It was just awful," Bellau recalled.

When night fell, the men parted ways and planned to reunite in the morning. But by morning, plans had changed. "The preacher was from Dallas and he says, 'I have to drive my guys to Dallas, they can't handle it anymore,'" referring to the group of men in recovery. The preacher handed Bellau a screwdriver that served as the keys to the boat—"you just jammed it into the ignition and it would turn on." Before the men parted ways, they reviewed their tally of how many people they rescued together in those first several days. Ten years later, the numbers were fuzzy, but Bellau estimates it was between 100 and 200. "We lost track. It was just a mark with a slash through it, like we were counting down the days in prison."

Without the rag-tag crew gone, Bellau decided to attempt rescues alone. "That's when things got really tense and scary. When you're with a group of guys, there's strength in numbers. It at least looked like some sort of purpose and goal. That day, when I was alone, I was really trying to stick to the list," Bellau remembered. "As I was on my way to a house, other people would wave me down. That was fine, but now that I had the motorboat, these weren't all friendly people. These were people that had bad intentions for me and the boat. They tried to overpower me and take the boat and I'm just lucky that I got out of there. One guy accused me of getting the black people last—but he used different words than that and he was very hostile. He had a gun on him."

Bellau escaped the situation and from then on he would load people onto the boat one by one, careful to avoid being overpowered. "It was all real tense, lots of real people misunderstanding who I was and what I was doing. Its easy to remember all those negative things. But I did get to a lot of people that day. I was coming out with 10, 15, 20 people on the boat every time."

On his third day out on his own, Bellau became depressed and told the man in the truck and his wife that he wouldn't return with any more evacuees. "I tell the guy in the truck, 'I'm done. I'm getting in my car and I'm leaving.' The matriarch, she grabs me by the arm and says 'What do you mean you're leaving?' I say I gotta get out of there, it's too hostile. she says, 'You from here?' I say yeah. She says, 'These are your people.' That was rough to hear. She said, 'Who else is out there doing that?' She said I was the first person she had seen in two days. She got me pretty upset and pretty teary. She gave me a bunch of words of wisdom and sent me right back out there. As I turned around, I realized that I don't know what the hell I'm going to do now." And then, Ken Bellau met the National Guard.

Leo Boeche
Leo Boeche, a member of the California National Guard, arriving in New Orleans in early September of 2005 to help the Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts. Leo Boeche/National guard

Leo Boeche greeted Bellau with a handshake and asked what, exactly, it was that he was doing out there. Boeche was a sergeant first class at the time of Katrina, a member of the California National Guard. He was with the Guard for 35 years and retired a captain. When he encountered Bellau, he realized he could use him—his knowledge of the city, his list of evacuees and, perhaps most importantly, his boat. From there, Bellau would work with dozens of Guardsmen, going out on numerous rescue missions.

"We made Ken an honorary member of the California National Guard," Boeche, a friendly and formidable man with a quick wit and impressive storytelling ability, told me during a long interview. "I ask him where he's from and he says, 'I'm from Uptown.' So I ask him where that is and he says, 'You're in Uptown.' Then I ask him where we can find a boat and he said, 'I know where there's a boat, I'll get the boat.' And I said, well, I'm going to take you too. We needed the help." With the Guard came a sense of security and organization for the city as a whole, but for Bellau, it also marked an increase in rescues. With the help of Boeche and his men, Bellau's borrowed boat went on to rescue over 400 stranded New Orleanians and take dozens of reporters out to see the sights, allowing them to disseminate more accurate information.

"Ken didn't expect anything in return," Boeche said of the lengthy rescue mission. "I saw more death and destruction in Katrina and I ever did in Iraq. I had PTSD from Katrina, not Iraq," Boeche, a Bronze Star recipient for his service in Iraq, said. "But I want to go back. Of all the things I ever did in my life, the most gratifying thing I ever did was serve the people of New Orleans."

For Bellau, the rescues allowed him to feel useful and in control after a hurricane that left him, and the rest of the city, otherwise powerless. When the city was pumped out, Bellau was relieved at the progress New Orleans had made, but internally he became hopeless. "I was scared to death. My purpose in New Orleans was gone. My reason for the military keeping me around was gone," Bellau said. Slowly, he recovered, working on other projects and reflecting on his rescue mission. He abandoned the fishing boat when the city was draining, leaving its accomplishment, his name and his phone number on it.

Eventually, the owners of the boat contacted him: "I thought they were going to sue me. But they just wanted to hear the stories." He went on to marry his wife, who sparked the rescue mission, in front of the boat in Jackson Square.

Ballau wedding
Ken Bellau and his wife Candy marry in front of the 24-foot fishing boat he used with various teams to rescue over 400 New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ken Bellau
How a Man With a Stolen Boat Rescued 400 People After Hurricane Katrina | U.S.