Set down on dry land after three days cowering atop furniture in her flooded kitchen, 83-year-old Camille Fletcher stumbled a few meters and collapsed. She and two of her children had made it through Hurricane Katrina alive, but her Glendalyn with the long, beautiful black hair was gone.
"My precious daughter," Fletcher sobbed Wednesday. "I prayed to God to keep us safe in his loving care."
Then, looking into an incongruously blue sky, she whimpered: "You're supposed to be a loving God. You're supposed to love us. And what have you done to us? Why did you do this to us?"
But for the rescuers who plucked Fletcher and untold others from roofs, balconies and highways flooded by Hurricane Katrina, such questions were a luxury they simply could not afford.
Emergency officials say 72 hours is about the longest they can expect most people to last in the sweltering Louisiana heat. So they called in volunteers from across this "fisherman's paradise" to help improve the survivors' odds.
At dawn, a motley armada of air boats, aluminum skiffs and even a two-seater Jet Ski moved out from the central business district. Heading east in the westbound lanes of Interstate 10, the boats passed the Superdome, where hundreds of ragged people stood on the hot pavement and helicopters buzzed around.
After nearly an hour of zigzagging around downed lampposts and plowing through water up to past their wheelwells, the volunteer navy arrived at a staging point in New Orleans East, just south of Lake Pontchartrain.
Within minutes of launching, the men were returning with sunken-eyed, sallow-skinned survivors.
The boats circled a Day's Inn, where people had hung sheets on the balconies reading, "SOS" and "We need food and water."
Camille Fletcher sat forlorn, not really caring when it would be her turn. Suddenly, a woman emerged from the waters and began walking toward her. She had long, disheveled black hair.
"Mamma?" she shouted.
"Oh my god, oh my God," the old woman screamed, kissing Glendalyn's hand and pressing it against her forehead. "My daughter's alive!"
The 59-year-old Glendalyn Fletcher told her family a harrowing story of how she had floated through a wall at her house a mile away from her mother's and swum, stripped naked by the raging torrent, to a neighbor's house and cowered in an attic; how someone had picked them up Tuesday and left them stranded on a water-locked section of I-10.
"It was horrible, but there were millions of stars," the dehydrated woman said.
A few moments later, it was time for Camille Fletcher to go to a shelter. Before being helped into the back of the moving truck, she looked back at her daughter and smiled.
"God is good."