At Superdome, `they have some hope now'

Most are evacuated, but 7,000 await buses

more are stuck elsewhere

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - About 7,000 hurricane refugees sheltered at the Superdome stood outside yesterday on mounds of garbage and debris, infuriated by the long wait, exhausted by five days in the cesspit that was once a sports arena and burned by the midday sun.

"I'm sick of you!" one man shouted at a stone-faced National Guardsman. "Sieg Heil! Heil Hitler!"

"You don't have no insulin?" a desperate man pleaded with a stranger. "No insulin at all? I'm a diabetic, and I lost my medicine."

One middle-aged woman defecated in the middle of the crowd, shielded by only a knit blanket. Another woman pleaded with a reporter for disposable diapers.

A shirtless middle-aged man collapsed, and National Guard medics tried to revive him.

To cool and quiet the restive crowd, a state police helicopter descended about noon, sending plastic and paper debris flying.

But more than the wind stirred by the blades, relief came from the knowledge that the end was finally in sight.

By noon yesterday, 17,000 people who took refuge in the dome had been loaded onto buses and sent back toward a world of lights and fans and clean water.

"They have some hope now," said Col. Thomas Beron of the Louisiana National Guard, who commands the 732 guardsmen charged with keeping order at the dome. "They have a direction to go."

But the remaining 7,000 "all want to leave," he said.

And for some, that cannot happen soon enough.

Inside the dome, a long-haired shirtless man shouted, "This ain't no Woodstock!"

But few were listening. By yesterday morning, all but about 100 of the remaining refugees were outside. His words echoed through the facility, as quiet as a church on Monday morning.

Life in the stadium quickly soured for those who sought shelter here from Hurricane Katrina. There has been no electricity or running water for days. The toilets have long since overflowed, and people have relieved themselves in hallways, in their seats, or wherever they could.

"The people didn't do this," said Beverly Conkright, 74, a retired office worker, one of the few yesterday who preferred to sit in the cool darkness than face the heat and tumult outside. "They were forced to do certain things." When toilets overflowed, they had to relieve themselves someplace. When no one hauled away the trash, there was no place left to store it.

Plastic bottles lay twinkling in the seats and on the field. The floors were sticky and soggy. The odor was indescribable. Outside, the stench of the building extended out open doors for perhaps a dozen yards in every direction. More piles of trash lay around, including heaps of ripped clothing, dirty blankets, shards of glass, bits of soiled cardboard and paper.

A jar of spaghetti sauce lay shattered. Many of the people who left had abandoned luggage. At least one plastic bag filled with prescription medicines lay among the trash.

Snaking lines led over a walkway to the entrance of the lobby of the Marriott Hotel. There, National Guardsmen picked groups of 50.

The wait was excruciatingly long: Some people had been in line, they said, since 3 p.m. the previous day. Children huddled in the heat, while women screamed and some men ranted, venting their bitterness at being treated, they said, like prisoners rather than refugees.

The chosen ones, most of whom had not showered or even changed clothes in several days, walked through the echoing lobby, flanked by National Guardsmen, and down a corridor marked by police tape.

They filed past fancy hotel shops, including the Horn of Plenty, stocked with toiletries and souvenirs.

Finally, they emerged again blinking on the street. Within a few minutes, they were herded onto waiting Greyhound, tourist and school buses.

Beverly Riley, 55, tearfully hugged a New Orleans policeman who had worked as a guard inside the Superdome as she stepped toward the bus.

When authorities announced that those still seeking shelter outside of the city might not end up in the Houston Astrodome, as first planned, but might instead go to San Antonio or Florida, it was all the same to most.

They just wanted the buses to take them somewhere - anywhere - far from what almost all considered a cursed place.

"I don't care where I go," said Byron Parker, 46, of North Derbigny Street. "All I want is some water, a cold shower, a cold beer."

Tiffany Riley, a weary thirtysomething with slumped shoulders, said Florida sounded better than Houston to her, especially because the first evacuees were taken to the Astrodome.

"I just don't want to be with a bunch of people again," she said. "If you'd seen what I've seen in the Superdome, you would know why I don't want to go to the Astrodome."

Besides the thousands still at the dome, thousands more were stranded on city freeways. And perhaps 20,000 flood refugees remained at the city's Convention Center, one mile south of the Superdome.

The first shipments of food arrived there yesterday. Witnesses described the scene inside as worse than at the dome.

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