Los Angeles Times: A Home for the Brave
A Home for the Brave
A police couple open their house to displaced officers who are still on the job
but struggling like everyone else.
By Scott Gold
Times Staff Writer
September 7, 2005
NEW ORLEANS — In a deserted subdivision, past mobile homes blown inside out and
power poles snapped in two, there is an unassuming home with a two-car garage,
porcelain ducks on the dining table and a swing set in the backyard.
The 26 men and women inside sleep next to their guns, scrounge for food, rely on
handouts for things like toilet paper, and steal cars.
Then they get up in the morning and try to save the city.
This is what it's come to for the New Orleans Police Department, where
authorities estimated Tuesday that 70% of the city's 1,700 officers are
The department has been decimated by Hurricane Katrina. Two officers have put
their guns in their mouths and killed themselves. More than 200 have quit. About
500 are unaccounted for. The rest have fought with looters, run out of
ammunition, fended off criticism of their response to the storm and been knocked
off rescue boats into the fetid stew that covers more than half the city.
For more than a week, they have dealt with personal tragedies no different from
anyone else's here — apartments that are underwater, parents who are missing,
children who are being shuttled from one shelter to the next.
Two dozen of them found their way to the home of Lt. David M. Benelli, 55,
commander of the city's sex crimes unit, and the woman he calls his child bride,
Sgt. Becky Benelli, 42, assistant commander of the crime lab. The Benellis are
cops to the core; they met at a traffic fatality and fell in love.
The officers at "Camp Benelli" in the Algiers area of New Orleans reflect the
diversity of the department: 21 men and five women, black and white, 33-year
veterans and patrol cops with six months under their belts. They have more than
300 years of combined service on the force.
And every morning, they find the strength to go to work.
Glenn Madison, 47, is a firearms instructor, a 22-year veteran of the force with
an easy smile and biceps that stretch the fabric of his T-shirt. His story is
typical of the officers staying at Camp Benelli.
His three children evacuated before the storm, and he has barely spoken with
them since. His home is underwater in New Orleans East, a district on the
northeast side. Two nights ago, he made his way back to Camp Benelli only to
hear that a bus carrying nursing-home evacuees had been hijacked west of the
"Your daddy was on there," one of his colleagues said.
Madison's father, an 83-year-old Alzheimer's patient, had been left with the
others on the side of the road. After a frantic night on his cellphone, as the
signal died again and again, Madison learned that his father had been picked up
by another bus and was safe. He tried to sleep for a couple hours, then hit the
"It definitely isn't for the pay," the officer said Tuesday. "Believe it or not,
this is where we live. New Orleans is our home. And this is our job."
Like those of so many people in New Orleans, the plight of the officers at Camp
Benelli began not so much with the hurricane itself but with the water that
began creeping into the city the next day.
Most of the officers were bunking at the crime lab, which is in the central
business district, when the hurricane hit Aug. 29. The water started rising
around the building that Monday, then came in the front doors by Tuesday
morning. The officers raced to the main police compound on South Broad Avenue,
but the water kept rising.
Madison had hauled his 20-foot-long fishing boat into town just in case and
parked it near City Hall. But without any tools, officers couldn't get it off
the trailer — so they roared into the flooded streets with the trailer still
attached to the hull. The water was so deep they didn't hit anything. They
picked up everyone left at the police compound and fled for a Marriott hotel on
St. Charles Avenue.
They were there for two days.
"Then the manager came by and said he was leaving," said Capt. R.R. Duryea,
commander of the crime lab. "He told us, 'There is no help coming to you.' "
They had no place to go, no police headquarters, no operating radios.
Meanwhile, the Benellis had made their way to the Algiers section — across the
Mississippi River and about seven miles from downtown — to check on their house.
That stretch of the West Bank, as it's known, fared better than almost any other
part of the metropolitan region. But even there, as the Benellis drove in, they
saw towering pine trees that had collapsed on houses, crushing roofs.
"I didn't lose a shingle," David Benelli said.
On Friday, Becky Benelli discovered that they had running water, a rare
commodity in New Orleans these days, even if it is not potable.
"You take stock," David Benelli said. "You circle the wagons. We're trying to
The Benellis decided to set up camp for their stranded colleagues. But the
officers' squad cars were underwater, and they had no way to get to the
Benellis' house. So they set up a checkpoint in downtown New Orleans. They spent
all night stopping every car that went through.
"Every car that was stolen, we stole it back," Duryea said. "That became our
There were 24 officers who needed a place to stay, and even with four bedrooms
at the Benellis, they needed more space. So David Benelli called his neighbor
"I said, 'John, I'm going to clean the debris off your lawn and fix your roof.
But I'm going to have to confiscate your house,' " Benelli said. "He said,
'Great. Do it.' "
The officers live like the Swiss Family Robinson. There are people assigned to
take out the trash — as far away as possible because it will not be picked up
soon — and people assigned to wash the towels once a day.
One officer has been dubbed "Generator Boy"; his only job is to keep the two
"appropriated" generators out back running and full of gas.
Officer Chana Pichon — known to colleagues as "Squeaky" — is the head chef,
sifting twice a day through industrial-size cans of spaghetti sauce and boxes of
cereal to devise culinary masterpieces, although the house has little
electricity and the oven and the fridge aren't working.
"The other day she made red beans and rice," Becky Benelli said. "I still
haven't figured that one out."
The house is peppered with the officers' gear and items purloined from their
stops along the way, including a portable fan lifted from the Marriott. On its
base someone had scrawled: "Room Service Only! Do not remove!"
There are guns lying everywhere — on the kitchen counter, on the couch.
The following items were on the Benellis' dining room table Tuesday: Q-Tips,
Right Guard, a 12-pack of toilet paper, an open box of Pop-Tarts, a flashlight,
three shotgun shells, two porcelain ducks and one dirty pair of socks. Another
table serves as the pharmacy: Rolaids, cough medicine, chewing gum, aspirin.
There are occasional treats that people drop off: chocolate, a whole chicken
that the officers threw on the grill, a 2003 Robert Mondavi Chardonnay that was
nestled in a pile of donated ice Tuesday.
"Mostly, though, they just need a place to lie down and sleep," David Benelli
At times, the housemates bicker like children.
"It's stupid little stuff: 'Somebody moved my towel!' But everybody knows what
it's really about," Becky Benelli said. "We all have our moments. Everybody in
here has taken a moment to just go off by themselves and cry."
At night, when they fall asleep on the floor, they try to talk about something
else. Golf. The New Orleans Saints. Their kids. Inevitably, they start talking
about the storm, about what has befallen their city, about their work.
Someone will reminisce about a photograph that has been lost forever. They talk
about the latest rumor: Tuesday's was that the department might establish its
headquarters on a cruise ship and dock it on the Mississippi. They swap
pointers: If you sleep in a chair, your ankles will be swollen in the morning.
They struggle through tragedies and dilemmas that would have seemed unthinkable
two weeks ago.
Pichon's 14-year-old son, her brother and her 76-year-old father, with whom she
shares her two-bedroom house, are missing. She searches for them in her off
hours but hasn't yet been able to find them. By day, she said, she tries to give
off an aura of authority to the stragglers left in the city. At night, she feels
her heart breaking.
"So what you see on the outside isn't what's happening on the inside," she said.
"I'm holding my cool."
Cpl. Clarence Taplin, a 25-year veteran called "Tap" by his colleagues, has been
on rescue boats every day since Katrina left. Four days ago, he fell in.
"I'm still not sure what happened," he said.
The next day, he started suffering from diarrhea. He was sweating profusely. He
didn't tell anyone for three days. Tuesday morning, another officer took him to
the hospital, where he was given two IVs and medication to fight an infection
before being sent back to Camp Benelli. He'll be at work this morning, he said.
The Benellis' 10-year-old daughter, Dana, is with relatives in Atlanta. Before
the storm, Becky Benelli had never spent more than four days apart from Dana.
Now, she's not sure when she'll see her again. It'll be long enough that the
Benellis have asked their relatives to enroll Dana in fifth grade there.
"We're just doing the best we can," Becky said. "And we're doing better than a
lot of people around here."
"I spent a year in Vietnam," David Benelli said. "The ordeal that these officers
have gone through has been as trying as the time I spent in 'Nam. This was the
right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. Now, if I could just get them to
wipe their feet when they come in the house."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times