The faces, sounds and smells of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina remain vivid 10 years later for Rich Waite, Marcus Bowling and Chad Rice.
Waite, 39, of Jackson County, recalls "the queen of the Nile," a woman in a wheelchair giving directions from the bow of a flat-bottomed boat.
Bowling, 42, of Mercer County, remembers lassoing a horse from a boat and leading it through the water to higher ground.
And Rice, 48, of Powell County, said he is haunted by faint cries for help from a place he couldn't pinpoint.
"We just couldn't find them," he said.
They were among 23 officers with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources who spent days in early September 2005 rescuing victims from flooded neighborhoods. They evacuated more than 200 people and helped deliver food and water to many more.
The officers were accompanied by Herald-Leader photographer Charles Bertram, who documented their efforts.
Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. Five days later, the Fish and Wildlife officers were in Louisiana, dispatched to the hurricane zone at the request of officials there who asked for law enforcement officers skilled at operating boats. Kentucky state troopers, vehicle enforcement officers, National Guard soldiers and others also went to relief duty on the Gulf Coast.
The work was physically and mentally taxing. The water was a stinking brew of raw sewage and toxic chemicals, and the officers piloting boats had to be careful not to bump sunken vehicles or floating bodies.
Simply wearing bullet-resistant vests in the sweltering heat was exhausting.
"Between hip waders and a bullet-proof vest, man, I bet I lost 20 pounds just sweating," Rice said.
In Kentucky, Fish and Wildlife officers enforce state boating regulations, and hunting and fishing laws. In New Orleans, they were charged with getting people out of their homes.
Rosa Lee Branch is one evacuee Waite remembers by name.
Fellow officers Mike Colvin and Robert Olds had come upon Branch, 72, her husband, Clarence Branch Jr., 73, and their daughter, Viola Hill, 50, on Onzaga Street.
Rosa Lee Branch had refused to leave when Katrina came, but Colvin and Olds convinced her that it was too dangerous to remain.
Because she was in a wheelchair, the Kentucky officers called for help, and several boats arrived in minutes. ABC Nightline host Ted Koppel arrived in one boat, accompanied by a cameraman, a sound technician and producers.
Rescuers managed to load Branch and her wheelchair into a johnboat, a flat-bottomed boat operated by Waite and another officer.
"The bow of this boat was big enough that she could sit on the front of it with a wheelchair, and the two of us just stood there to make sure she didn't roll off," Waite said.
Koppel got on board and interviewed Branch while the boat headed for New Orleans' Fair Grounds Race Course, which is owned by Churchill Downs and was used as a rescue staging area.
"She and Ted Koppel chit-chatted the whole way there," Waite said. "She was giving directions like she was in the back seat of a cab."
Waite said she was dubbed "the Queen of the Nile."
When they got to the racetrack entrance, the water was too shallow for the boat's propeller to operate. So the officers and Koppel, who had no wading boots, jumped into the nearly waist-deep water and pulled the boat the last 50 yards to dry land.
The person whom Rice remembered most was a 91-year-old woman who still worked but who hadn't left her house since the water had risen around it.
"She was terrified that her boss was going to fire her from her job," Rice said. "And we assured her, 'Honey, nobody's been to work in this town, trust me, because everything is under water.' She had no grasp of the severity of the situation.
"She felt better after we explained to her that 'We're pretty positive your boss is going to understand why you haven't been to work,'" Rice said.
Then there was a Gulf War veteran who initially didn't want to leave his home. He and some children were living in the upper floor of a house surrounded by water.
The veteran changed his mind when Waite and other rescuers gave them MREs — prepackaged "meals ready to eat," a staple for Gulf War troops and those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We had just about left, if I remember right," Waite said, "and we're pulling out. And he said, 'Wait a minute. I'm not eating any more MREs. I swore when I was in the desert, I wasn't going to eat any more MREs. Get us out.'
"So we stopped, and they jumped in the boat and we got 'em out of there," Waite said.
Repeated coaxing persuaded an elderly man to evacuate the upper floor of an apartment building, Bowling said.
"I would say we talked to him for an hour, at least," Bowling said. "We said, 'Look, the water's not going away any time soon. The conditions are not going to get better any time soon. I understand you're scared of the unknown, but it's safer for us to get you out of here than for you to stay.' We finally got him out."
Rice recalled one heart-breaking episode that conveys the isolation that a disaster can have on a metropolitan area.
"I'll tell you something I haven't told many: I think it was the next-to-last day I was there. ... We'd shut the motor off and just hollered to let people know who we were and try to get somebody to respond to us.
"And in about a 20-minute period, I heard somebody holler for help twice, in a real faint voice," Rice said. In his hip waders, "I went to houses for two hours, three hours, and just couldn't find them. And it's haunted me to this day, knowing that somebody used the last little bit of energy they had to holler for me and I couldn't find them. I just heard 'em holler for help twice. Jim (Gibson, another Fish and Wildlife officer) heard it, too. But we just couldn't find them. We just figured they were in an attic."
Rice said he doesn't blame himself for the fruitless search. "It'd drive you crazy if you did," he said. "You just wish you could have found them."
The threat of violence was as much a part of the scene as waterlogged cars and downed utility poles. The Kentuckians were issued extra ammunition for their handguns, shotguns and AR-15 rifles before getting in their boats, and some were accompanied by members of a SWAT team from the Detroit office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
They occasionally heard gunshots, but the Kentuckians were never attacked. But they kept their eyes and ears open for trouble.
"The spookiest thing was you were riding through a neighborhood in a boat, and you would see people pulling curtains to the side," Rice said. "Boy, if somebody wanted to do you in, you'd never know it was coming."
"At night it was silent," Waite said. "There were no vehicles other than the one you were in. We drove through in a caravan and other than each other, there was no movement. It's almost like you were on the set of The Walking Dead or something."
But there were moments of satisfaction, when the officers knew they had helped people and animals in desperate need.
Rice was with two Detroit SWAT team members when "we could hear something hollering and making this crazy sound. And we thought, 'What in the world is that?'"
It turned out to be a macaw, a long-tailed parrot native to Central and South America. The blue, yellow and red bird, possibly abandoned by its owner, had held onto a screen in a window.
"It was straining to hold its head up out of the water," Rice said. Roger Guthrie, a Detroit ATF agent, extended the end of a paddle, and the bird perched onto it and was pulled to safety.
Bowling helped rescue a horse standing in water. Officers speculated that the animal and other horses might have been used to pull tourist carriages through the city.
"Lassoing a horse from a boat is an interesting experience," Bowling said. "But we just had to use the rope we had on the boat to get hold of one.
"You can't see things under the water, and we encountered a fence. So we had to figure out how to maneuver the horse around the fence. I felt like we did some good when we got it up on a highway."
Waite and Bowling have been back to New Orleans in recent years. The city lost half its residents after Katrina, but by 2014 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the population had rebounded to 384,320, or 79 percent of what it was before the hurricane.
Despite the heat and hazards they faced, the officers said they would volunteer again for disaster relief in a hurricane zone.
"It's the best thing I've ever done since I've been associated with the Department of Fish and Wildlife," Bowling said. "We were down there doing something for humanity that was good. It was just an exceptional experience for me to be involved with."