NEW ORLEANS — Nick Cronin woke up with a start, shaken from recurring memories of what he has seen since he arrived in New Orleans.
He crept out into the humid night, past his friends asleep all around him, to get a breath of air and "talk to the Man."
The fog was thick and the moon was bright, making the soft surroundings seem almost spiritual. Despite all the horror, says Mr. Cronin, "It made me more sure of what I was doing here."
The Red Cross and other relief organizations have dispatched thousands of volunteers to the hurricane ravaged region. But some unbidden helpers are finding ways into the city - on their own or in small tribes of friends - ready to offer supplies or skills useful in emergencies. Cronin is among those who have come to New Orleans, not under orders, not to make a profit cleaning and rebuilding, but simply to volunteer their time.
A tile layer by trade and owner of an airboat for pleasure, the sturdy Floridian felt an obligation to offer his craft to the relief efforts. So he packed up what he could and headed west, unsure whether he would get in or even if he would have his job when he got back.
"Last year when all those hurricanes hit our area, our neighbors got together and helped us," he says, knee-deep in water at the bottom of a freeway exit ramp. "It just seemed right to do the same."
Cronin came with a group of nine friends from Florida, all with airboats. Across the devastated city are others like them. Whether driving supply vehicles, providing their own equipment, or simply offering a helping hand, those volunteering have touched even the most hardened military hearts.
"These guys are incredible," says Gregg Marcantel, a lieutenant with the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department in New Mexico who has taken the Florida airboat group under his wings.
His officers began working with eight volunteer boats and their captains in the days after the hurricane. In the past three days, the numbers have grown to 18.
Many have puts holes in their boats by driving over fences, tops of cars, and street signs. But getting the hulls patched has not been a problem, they say. When repair-shop owners find out what they are doing, they often offer their services free of charge.
The days are long for volunteers, sometimes starting at 4 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m. Some sleep in shelters and camps alongside other law-enforcement officials. Others are spending thousands of dollars in fuel and supplies, and dodging bullets while working. But they all say the reward of helping those in need is worth it.
Dale Dorman feels like a counselor in addition to an airboat operator. He drove down to Florida from Atlanta to pick up his boat and then made his way to New Orleans. He's spent at least $1,000 of his own money and is living in a shelter in La Place, La.
"Some people we are rescuing don't even know what's going on. They have no contact with neighbors, no TV. They don't even know that the levee broke. They think this is just street flooding," he says, piloting his craft through an east New Orleans neighborhood still underwater.
"They don't want to leave because it's their home, and I can understand that. You don't want to tell them that they'll probably never come back."
Mr. Dorman was also part of the group that was getting fired upon by snipers while trying to rescue patients from Charity Hospital. He had to don a flak jacket to continue working, but even that hasn't deterred him.
Ewart Austin was one of those who stayed during the hurricane and had to be rescued from his roof in the 9th Ward. He was sent to a shelter in Tyler, Texas, but came back within days to volunteer his time.
"My whole family is from New Orleans. I don't know anyone in Texas," he says from the bed of a truck parked along Canal Street. His group has come to stock up on ice for the night. They are feasting on "meals ready to eat" and sleeping at a shelter just outside of town.
The informal volunteer group was put together by Christopher Baker, who used to teach 4th graders in the New Orleans school district. Suddenly out of a job, Mr. Baker went to the Shreveport, La., school district looking for work.
They ended up asking him to drive a school bus to and from New Orleans to pick up evacuees. When the numbers began to dwindle severely, he packed up his flat-bottom boat, threw in some supplies, and asked some friends to tag along.
They are doing a wide range of tasks. Earlier that day, for instance, they helped rescue three elderly men from a senior center that was finally on dry ground. And the day before, they brought a load of clean clothes to New Orleans police officers who hadn't had a fresh change since the hurricane. "It just makes you feel awesome," says Mr. Austin's cousin, Trevor Best.