WATERFORD – Like so many of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, Frank Sampson Jr. is still struggling to understand his experience.

As recently as Sunday, the 45-year-old maitre d’ was camped out with untold numbers of refugees at a makeshift shelter near the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, fighting for a cot and a place on a bus that would take him out of the city.

Days before, he had stood helpless and alone except for the companionship of the small dog he’d returned home to save, watching the floodwaters rise up the bricks of a building across the street from his duplex. Helicopters roared overhead. Gunshots could be heard in the night.

As Sampson recalled last week’s struggle while in the safety of his parents’ backyard on Temple Hill Road on Wednesday, he used the word “surreal.” For three days, he’s been in Maine at the home of his parents, Frank Sr. (who’s nicknamed Sam) and Helen Sampson. But at night, he still thinks that it all may be a bad dream and he’ll wake up in his own home in New Orleans tomorrow.

“It was like a war zone,” he said, describing the empty streets, destroyed homes, downed trees and power lines, and the rat- and snake-infested floodwaters he eventually swam through to reach safety.

It seemed routine

Sampson lived in a funky New Orleans duplex about four miles from the city center and the Louisiana Superdome.

He and his roommate, Ken, believed Katrina would be a routine bout of bad weather. Sampson had been through dozens of evacuations in his eight years there. When the storm was downgraded from a Category 5 hurricane to a Category 4 before it struck Louisiana, he felt safe.

No police or National Guardsmen knocked on his door to tell him to leave. Now, looking back, Sampson wonders about the lack of information preceding the storm. “It just makes me so mad to think how they could have prevented so much,” he said. While public officials knew of the city’s vulnerability, they also “knew New Orleans was full of people that are poor, and like me, don’t have transportation to get out of town.”

But everything seemed all right at first. Having survived the immediate threat of Katrina, it wasn’t until Sampson heard reports of weak levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain that he decided to leave Tuesday. He walked the devastated city streets to visit Ken where he worked at a nearby hospital, then headed home to pick up Foxy, their Pomeranian. But the water burst forth from the lake before he made it home, and it was swirling around his legs as he reached his front door.

Sampson spent two days trapped on the second floor of his building, listening to helicopters and gunshots.

On Thursday, he said he “couldn’t take it anymore.” Finding a piece of Styrofoam, he placed Foxy in a box atop this makeshift raft and began paddling. He’d heard of refugee camps on the radio and headed toward the airport. A few hours later, he was there.

Under the bridges

While Sampson waited under bridges near the airport with more evacuees than he could count, he gave up his clothes and even his dog. He has since learned that Foxy has found a home with a friend.

He lived on military rations and slept in the same jeans and shirt he’d worn since Tuesday.

Finally, on Sunday, he claimed a spot in line for a bus, and waited until he was on board and bound for Texas. By Monday, he was in an airport and about to head north.

It wasn’t until Sampson was in the airport that the full scope of what he had endured began to settle in. Standing near the check-in counter in his stinking, unkempt clothes, he picked up a copy of a magazine and for the first time witnessed photographs of New Orleans after Katrina.

“So I pick up a Newsweek when I was there at the counter and I looked at the cover and I just started crying,” he said, his eyes welling with fresh tears.

After receiving a quizzical look, Sampson explained to the woman about to check him onto the plane that he’s just survived the hurricane. She touched his arm in understanding.

“I’m not going back,” he said Wednesday. “I really don’t think I can do that.”

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