[Katrina] How places of refuge went to Hell
- From: indigoace@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Indigo Ace)
- Date: Thu, 15 Sep 2005 20:16:07 GMT
>From the Chicago Tribune--
HOW PLACES OF REFUGE WENT TO HELL
Over 5 increasingly horrific days, the evacuees at the Superdome and
convention center came to feel like prisoners and prey
By Paul Salopek and Deborah Horan
Tribune staff reporters
Published September 15, 2005
NEW ORLEANS -- To people who stayed in either of the two battered
buildings, it was a "horrible prison." Or "the darkest hole in the
world." Or "the place I want to forget." Mostly, though, they just
called it hell.
Located roughly a mile apart, the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial
Convention Center stand like gigantic, derelict castles bracketing the
ruined business district of New Orleans. Today, they are eerily
lifeless except for the workers cleaning up their fouled
grounds--nauseating debris fields of human feces, soiled clothes,
shoes and rotting Army rations.
But, for one terrible week starting Aug. 29, the two
mega-structures--ostentatious symbols of American popular culture and
commercial might--swarmed with at least 22,000 frantic people and
perhaps many more, all victims of the massive floods that Katrina
unleashed in her wake, and all despairing of hope for government
resupply or rescue.
"The stuff that happened inside there, my Lord, I never thought could
happen in this country," said Michael Clark, 44, one of the thousands
of mostly poor New Orleans residents who sought refuge at the
Superdome. "It was like the whole world was ending. I don't want to
see that building ever again."
What happened inside the towering walls of these two buildings in
downtown New Orleans has already become one of the iconic images of
government bungling in the aftermath of Katrina: throngs of
sweat-drenched refugees spilling from edifices that were never
designed to hold them, pleading to be taken away, begging for water
and food, stepping over the unattended dead--all while rumors of gang
rapes, murders and mayhem swirled from the darkened buildings behind
It will likely be months before investigators fully piece together
what went on inside the Superdome and the convention center.
But Tribune interviews with survivors, law-enforcement officers and
military forces at the scene reveal how, for one week immediately
after the hurricane, life in the two teeming urban shelters quickly
devolved into a Hobbesian world of ruthless predators preying on the
While the more gruesome allegations of gang rapes have not been
verified, more than a dozen eyewitness accounts confirmed other acts
Survivors told how young toughs commandeered access to relief supplies
and tauntingly resold them to the starving masses. People were robbed
and killed. Criminal gangs openly battled with fist and gun at the
so-called havens. And--in a nightmarish version of New Orleans' famed
Mardi Gras Carnival--looters trashed the multimillion-dollar
facilities, with some thieves even donning concessionaire uniforms at
the Superdome and cheekily hawking stolen pizzas.
"I'm really not outraged at the people," said Capt. John Bryson of the
New Orleans police, whose 80 to 90 officers were vastly outnumbered by
crowds of up to 15,000 at the convention center. "Ninety percent of
the folks were just reduced to an animal existence, trying to survive.
"I'm outraged at being abandoned there by the government," Bryson said
acidly. "I felt totally helpless."
Day 1: Monday, Aug. 29
Pummeled by Katrina, the neglected levees around New Orleans sprang
their first leaks in the early hours Monday, according to the Army
Corps of Engineers.
Most of the city's low-lying neighborhoods were flooded 16 to 20 hours
later. Helicopters or boats began rescuing people from rooftops and
delivering them to the Louisiana Superdome, the aging, 70,000-seat
home of the New Orleans Saints football team, where several thousand
had taken shelter before the storm hit.
The family of Derrick Jones Sr., 35, a bail bondsman from the 9th
Ward, was among the evacuees. After watching fish swim through the
rising waters inside his attic, Jones frantically smashed a hole in
his roof with a two-by-four and helped his wife, Carla, and their four
children squeeze through. They arrived at the Superdome in the predawn
The exhausted family--dressed in the same bedclothes they would wear
for the next five days--staked out their turf in a crowded hallway on
the stadium's third level, between the private suites of Saints
players Joe Horn and Aaron Brooks.
"We were trying to stay in spirit," Jones said. "Everyone had their
area, and they named it."
What Jones and at least 10,000 other storm victims didn't know was
that the Superdome, while designated by local officials as a shelter
of last resort, was never meant to hold storm refugees for long.
According to news reports, neither the state of Louisiana nor the city
of New Orleans had planned to stock the facility with water or food.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency had hastily offloaded 90,000
liters of water and 43,776 military meals, or MREs, at the sports
facility, an inadequate supply for the swelling mass of evacuees.
"We could never get more supplies through. I don't really know why,"
said Lt. Col. Gary Nunn, 53, of the Louisiana National Guard, a senior
officer on duty at the dome. "So we had to start rationing the food
early, giving people only one meal packet and a bottle of water twice
The chow lines grew to be two hours long. Exhausted elderly people
were unable to keep their places, Nunn said. Belligerent shoving
Meanwhile, more stunned and sodden storm victims kept arriving from
the new swamp of New Orleans.
Day 2: Tuesday, Aug. 30
By Tuesday afternoon, society in the Superdome was unraveling.
Baking under the Southern sun without electric power, the cavernous
enclosure was a dim sauna whose only ventilation consisted of two
car-size holes clawed into the roof by Katrina's winds. The crowds
were anxious to leave. Some didn't even believe the city was still
flooded; the National Guard and police were keeping them inside the
Then the toilets, powered by inoperative electric pumps, backed up.
"The men were stoolin' in the toilets 'til they were overflowing,"
said evacuee Clark, who had arrived at the Superdome with his sick
father after blasting through his home's roof with a shotgun. "Then
they went beside the walls. Then they filled the urinals. They were
peeing and pooing into the sinks and garbage cans and behind the
concession stands. You got it all over your shoes. You were tracking
it all over the place."
The horrible stench forced the National Guard to finally allow
thousands of retching people to move outside the noxious dome.
And that's when the chaos inside the lightly patrolled stadium
ratcheted up, witnesses said.
"Things got crazy in there," said Percilla Talbert, 30, a rail-thin
smoker with four gold front teeth and three children. "Everyone with
good sense was fearful. The atmosphere in the place was fear."
Talbert, whose family couldn't leave the city because her car was
broken down, watched gangs of angry young men bash their way through
the walls of the stadium's third-floor luxury suites. Other witnesses
saw determined crowds smash into the concession stands and cold drink
machines using bicycle racks as battering rams.
"This was for survival," Talbert said. "They were getting food,
passing it out. They didn't have enough MREs."
And as the hunger and thirst deepened, so did the violence.
Even earlier on Tuesday, in fact, the first reports of rapes had
surfaced. No victim except the popular New Orleans singer Charmaine
Neville has come forward to report being sexually assaulted at the
Superdome. But the eyewitness accounts of three storm survivors
coincided on several points: Sometime during the wee hours of Tuesday
morning, a gang of men, some white, some black, attacked another man
on the third floor for allegedly raping a child. Accounts differ as to
whether the victim was a 7-year-old boy or a 15-year-old girl.
"They was beating that guy like it was no tomorrow," Jones said. "The
[military police] came and got him. Took him downstairs."
But Nunn, of the National Guard, recalled nobody being taken into
custody. He said that stories of rapes in bathrooms were burning
through the beleaguered stadium like wildfire.
"I had guys looking for the alleged rapists, but we never found any,"
he said. "But our hands were full with 1,000 other things too."
They were about to get much fuller.
Meanwhile, 10 blocks away, thousands more Katrina survivors were being
diverted from the Superdome to a second gargantuan emergency shelter,
the convention center.
Day 3: Wednesday, Aug. 31
The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is a hangar-like,
3,300-foot-long building named after a former New Orleans mayor.
The mayhem there was, if anything, worse than at the Superdome:
Whereas several hundred guardsmen and a sizable contingent of city
police had disarmed the public at the sprawling stadium, at the
convention center, there were no such security measures. Nor was the
center, which was never intended to hold refugees, provisioned with
the least food or water.
Almost immediately, the crowd, which swelled to perhaps 15,000, became
desperate--then explosive. Criminals prowled.
"I can't remember how many times we responded to shots fired," said
Capt. Jeffery Winn, 43, the haggard chief of the New Orleans SWAT
team. "We'd charge into the building in full combat mode, 360-degree
security. We'd see muzzle flashes from thugs firing at us inside, and
chase them through the darkness, then get the hell out. The whole
place smelled like piss."
Terrified families fell to the center's decorative magenta carpets in
fetal positions during these shootouts, Winn said, adding that they
were screaming, "Help! Please save us!"
Later, Winn would find a corpse with multiple stab wounds in the
The center was without power, and sweltering. Some of the elderly and
the very young were quietly dying of dehydration in the building's
countless halls, nooks and crannies. One body was left in a wheelchair
by an entrance to the plush La Louisiane Ballroom. Bereaved family
members, aided by strangers, carried other dead, including infants, to
a second-floor office that became a makeshift morgue.
"The recurrent theme in my mind, by Wednesday, was that no cavalry was
coming, so we had to hold things together ourselves," said Dr. Gregory
Henderson, 43, a pathologist who happened to be attending a medical
conference at the nearby Ritz-Carlton Hotel when Katrina struck, and
who volunteered his services to the city's overwhelmed first
"I saw people dying at the convention center, I saw people already
dead, and there was nothing--nothing--I could do because I had no
tools," said a still-shaken Henderson this week. "That was the hell of
the day. Then the night would fall, and it became like a Stephen King
novel. These predators were holed up in the center, and they came out
and preyed on the people."
Henderson said that refugees told of storm-sodden girls being dragged
inside the blackened building and raped, then thrown back out. Again,
however, no witnesses or victims could be found to corroborate such
Day 4: Thursday, Sept. 1
By Thursday, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin called the situation at
the Superdome critical and made his famous "desperate SOS" to federal
authorities for more transport to evacuate the seething stadium.
Talbert, whose bum car prevented her from escaping Katrina, managed to
snag a precious seat on one of the first buses. A woman in the sweaty
line in front of her, she said, miscarried before getting a ride.
Inside the stadium, meanwhile, the mood was sinking to even uglier
Racial tensions flared when a group of 62 tourists, many from Britain,
were perceived to be receiving preferential treatment from the
authorities, a military official said. The frightened foreigners
banded together in the stadium's midfield seating area, fending off
circling gangs of furious youths, until the National Guard extracted
By now a National Guardsman inspecting the lower levels of the arena
was shot in the leg by an unknown assailant. The atmosphere of despair
had become so inflammable that the small guard contingent worried
about being overrun by angry people.
"We had to essentially blockade ourselves on the bottom floor of the
dome on Claiborne Street to keep them from attacking us," said Nunn,
an Iraq war veteran. "It was pretty touch-and-go. But what the folks
didn't understand was, we were all in the same boat."
The only silver lining of the day was that the demand for MREs was
dropping. So many concessions and suites had been looted, the food
crisis eased somewhat.
"The day before, people were offering $10 for my MRE," said evacuee
Clark. "Now they were wandering around selling or giving away hot dogs
and pizzas. One guy broke into a beer stand and was selling it for $3
a cup. He even put on the hat!"
Day 5: Friday, Sept. 2
On Friday, National Guard units began arriving in force in New
Orleans. Bus convoys began hauling away the staggering inhabitants of
the Superdome en masse.
Earlier, 10 blocks away at the convention center, three cars filled
with thugs--women as well as men--drove past the distressed throngs of
filthy, distraught survivors, firing pistols into the terrified
Police Capt. Bryson and his few men looted baby formula from shattered
downtown stores to give to hungry infants.
"We helped in what little way we could," said the officer, who later
collapsed from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized. "I saw terrible
things. Just terrible things. But I also saw people sharing what
little food they had. There was bravery and kindness."
This was the day that President Bush first toured the areas gutted by
Katrina. He called the government response to the hurricane "not
acceptable." More than 50 nations pledged to help the U.S. with
disaster assistance, including even impoverished Afghanistan.
Back at the now thoroughly trashed convention center, Henderson, the
doctor, was trying to save the life of an 8-year-old. The boy was
suffering a severe asthma attack.
"I just sat there and held him for a while, and looked into his eyes,"
Henderson said. "He was terrified of dying, and I was trying to focus
him, to talk him down. There was nothing else I could do."
As far as he knows, the boy survived.
About the authors
Paul Salopek, a Chicago Tribune correspondent, has reported from
Africa, Central America, the Balkans and Central Asia. He has won two
Pulitzer Prizes, the first in 1998 for his coverage of the
controversial Human Genome Diversity Project, and the second in 2001
for his work in Africa, including coverage of the civil war in Congo.
Deborah Horan, a Tribune staff reporter, has covered such disparate
subjects as suburban crime and the war in Iraq. Before joining the
Tribune, she was a Middle East correspondent, reporting from Israel,
Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. She was a Knight-Wallace
Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2001.
Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune
indigoace at goodsol period com
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