Melvin's Katrina Experience

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Sep. 16, 2005 Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

UFC fighter Guillard floored by Hurricane Katrina


Melvin Guillard was a star high school athlete in New Orleans, a 152-pound state champion wrestler and one of the city's best linebackers.

"I was pretty good at pretty much everything," Guillard said.

He wasn't shy about sharing his opinion of himself, either.

When he joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Guillard was quick to predict greatness for himself in the mixed martial arts organization.

"I felt like I was a big shot and I couldn't be stopped," he says now, softly and without a hint of arrogance.

Guillard's dose of humility didn't come on a wrestling mat, a football field or in the UFC octagon.

He learned the true measure of himself as he stared death in the eye while trapped in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29.

His immediate family members had evacuated the city several days before, but Guillard, 22, refused to leave fiancee Brittney Magee behind.

Magee, 20, works for the sheriff's department in New Orleans and was forced to stay in town to remain on duty.

"I knew what it meant to stay, but I also knew that I was going to be there with her through whatever happened," said Guillard, who had weathered many previous hurricanes. "There was just no way I could leave and say, 'Hey, I love you. Be safe. I'll see you later.' I couldn't do that."

It turned out to be a life-altering decision, though at first Guillard was simply frustrated that his car was going to be ruined.

He parked his 1992 Infiniti on high ground, thinking it would be safe.

But the water kept rising.

He moved it onto a hill near a fast-food restaurant, but the water continued to rise, engulfing the car.

Guillard, who fights in the UFC's welterweight division, looked out a window in the building he was in and saw the water was at least 6 feet deep.

He saw police officers in pontoon boats transporting prisoners away from a nearby jail but ignoring the plight of many senior citizens and women with babies stranded in the building he was in.

A bridge was about a half-mile away and Guillard decided the only thing he could do was help people move up to the bridge.

He dived out a window and swam up to the bridge to survey the situation.

"We had a lot of elderly people who were so afraid and couldn't swim and they were just going to get killed if someone didn't do something," Guillard said.

Pieces of building materials blown off houses were floating around in the water.

Guillard, who said he was comfortable in survival mode because of frequent childhood camping trips with his father, fashioned the materials into a raft. He began to transport people to the bridge.

He was desperate for a drink. His stomach ached for food. He was cold to the bone.

But Guillard said he knew he had to keep going. He estimated as many as 90 people were in the building and would die shortly if he didn't help.

Getting them to the bridge, where they were safe from the raging waters, wasn't the only issue. They had no food or water and no shelter from the stifling heat. Guillard said no emergency personnel showed up for three days.

Out of desperation, he commandeered an abandoned water company truck and brought bottles of water to the people he had helped move to the bridge.

It was critical, but it was only a start.

"It's the South and it was really hot," he said. "People were up there with no food. After a while, maybe about 600 people were on that bridge. It was the safest place they could get to.

"Some of the people had been to the Superdome, but they were talking about how men were raping women and people were being killed and no one felt that was an option. But we only had so much water and no food."

He made the decision to break into a convenience store to take food and milk.

On television, commentators were critical of looters, but Guillard looked at his group more as survivors.

"I only took what we needed to survive," he said. "It was life and death, literally. There were people who were looting I saw who were just taking material things for themselves, but I just took what we needed so people could live.

"Some of the food in the store was messed up anyway because the water got to it, but there was some stuff up high we could get. People were dying all over -- there were a lot of babies up there -- and nobody was coming to help. We had to do something."

As he was making his trips back and forth for supplies, he noticed an old man at the end of the bridge who was sweating profusely.

Guillard asked if he could help. The man was diabetic, he said, and had no insulin. He hadn't eaten for days and was feeling very weak.

Guillard gave him water and helped sit him against a railing as he went to find a police officer to try to get medicine.

"I just couldn't find anyone," Guillard said. "I got back and I found him."

The man had died, in the same position Guillard had left him in, clutching the water in his hand that Guillard had given him.

"That hurt bad," he said, his voice quivering. "It hurt real bad. It was someone who didn't have to die."

He watched many people die, something he never thought he would see.

"It messes with you, in a sense," he said.

He eventually was taken to safety and came to Las Vegas, where he stayed for several days as UFC officials provided housing and essential supplies.

He got an apartment in Houston -- "We just kept hearing that that whole city was crazy, that everyone was just helping everyone else and it turned out to be true," Guillard said -- and left Las Vegas earlier this week for Houston.

Life as he once knew it is over, Guillard said. He saved lives, saw people die and extended himself in a way he never knew he could.

He will be a better person and a better athlete for it, he said, though he mourns the New Orleans he knew and that no longer exists.

"To see the place I was born and raised wiped out in front of my eyes, man, you can't imagine," he said. "No matter how much I travel, I was always proud of where I was from and wanted to go home. But now I don't have anywhere to go home to.

"As a fighter, it's going to make me better, because I know I'm mentally tougher. One of the guys (in the UFC) always would say, your body is flesh, but your mind, your soul, that's eternal.

"I know what he means now. This is a horrible tragedy, but I know that I will rebuild my life and come out of it a better person."