Those Who Stayed Behind: The Cops of New Orleans

Sept. 9, 2005 — -- Since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, hundreds of the city's police officers are thought to have deserted the force.

"When I sit in the car at night," Captain Tony Cannatella reflected, "I cry. Man, you got to cry. I mean, you can't laugh because it's not funny. You got to cry."

When the history of Hurricane Katrina is set down on the page, Cannatella, the 58-year-old commander of the city's sixth district, will no doubt emerge as one of the few who displayed true leadership.

Cannatella and his men have been living and working out of the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store, a place they now call Fort Wal-Mart.

"We made this our police station. We put up an American flag, and we said this is it," Cannatella explained. "We're going to stay and do our jobs, and when we leave here, we'll turn it back over to Wal-Mart."

"We have 132 officers assigned to this district," said Cannatella. "We've had three quit, and a couple go down with injuries, but other than that, we are still here."

Sticking Together

While command and discipline collapsed elsewhere in the Gulf Coast region, Cannatella's gruff charm held the officers at Fort Wal-Mart together.

"I'll follow that man to the ends of the world," Detective Tim Bruneau said.

Laundry hangs from a tree outside the Wal-Mart store. There is a dining room set up next to the checkout counters. One of the officers even got married this week in the parking lot.

"Some of the officers here have homes that withstood this, myself included, and they could go home every night, but they don't want to," explains Cannatella. "They're sticking together. We've decided that we're all going to stay here until we can all go home."

As for those who have deserted, Cannatella expresses nothing but contempt for them.

"I don't respect anybody that can't do what they took an oath to do," says Cannatella.

Cannatella and his officers first came to the Wal-Mart to respond to the reports of looting.

"Elderly women, small children, carrying bread, water. What do you do? I'll be honest with you," Cannatella said. "I gave the order not to arrest them. They were stealing something to sustain life."

Soon Cannatella's officers were no different. With their own station house flooded, they began to live off what they found on the shelves at Wal-Mart.

"Damn, I mean, we were hungry, and I felt like, you know, we started having doubts about ourselves," recounted Cannatella. "Are we criminals because we're going ahead and taking food?"

Every night is like going into a war zone. In those first nights after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, hundreds of weapons and boxes of ammunition were stolen from the Wal-Mart and elsewhere while police, powerless to make arrests, looked on.

"Our problem was our lockup was underwater. So we had no place to put them," explained Cannatella. "But we firmly believe you're going to pay me now, or you're going to pay me later. So the ones we did catch, we have their information. When this is over, and we're back on our feet, we're coming to see them."

One night this past week, with access to a new jail, Cannatella's officers worked with a special FBI team to capture a suspected looter.

"You still have to do police work. You still have to patrol," said Cannatella, "but the thought in the back of your mind is who's caring for my family? Who's caring for my people while I'm out here caring for them?"

Families Bear Burden

Cannatella's officers and their families have paid a heavy price over the last two weeks.

Officer Bryant Louis watched helplessly as he passed by his family waving for help from a rooftop.

"We had several people stuck on roofs of homes at the time, and I couldn't possibly ask for anyone to bypass any survivor in order to get a relative. I just couldn't do it," Louis recalled. "So my mother and my family ended up staying a day and a half on the roof before I was able to get two of my co-workers to assist me and rescue them."

Lesley St. Germain and Bridget, her 2-year-old daughter, went to Baton Rouge. Her husband, a lieutenant with the New Orleans Police Department, ignored their pleas to join them.

"Please just leave. Just take off out of there, and he didn't want too." Leslie remembers. "He said too many people depend on me."

This past week, Lieutenant Terry St. Germain took a break to check on his family's home. He found that it had been looted.

"My wife's jewelry is missing. I brought it back here last night thinking it was safe, and I was wrong," said St. Germain.

"He called me on the phone, and he said everything is gone in our house," Leslie added. "He was crying and weeping, and he just pretty much couldn't handle it."

"I'm so frustrated. I can't stand it. You know why I'm frustrated?" St. Germain asked. "Because I'm very, very angry this happened to me. Because I'm protecting these people and working around the clock, and all my brother and sister officers lost their whole house, and I can't even hardly be mad about this because I still have my house. So I guess I'm lucky I got looted."

For others, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has been far too much.

Sgt. Paul Accardo, a public information officer, used his service revolver to kill himself.

"He was worried about his family, about getting in touch with them, and he was very distraught because he felt like he had let them down because he couldn't find them," Leslie explained.

It turns out Accardo's family was fine. Funeral services for the sergeant and another officer, who also took his own life, were held this week.

"To me, they died in the line of duty. They died of injuries caused to their psychological being from this storm," says Cannatella. "That they were told you have to perform, you have to protect, and you have to serve, and they did."

As for the captain himself, "You know, my wife asked me the other day, she said, 'Why do you still do this? Why?' And I said, 'Well, you get up every day, and you go to work with heroes.' Not everybody can say that."

ABC News' Maddy Sauer, Rhonda Schwartz, and Vic Walter contributed to this report.