Evacuation of thousands gives New Orleans a ghostly feel

Weary residents get on buses, helicopters, vans

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Early yesterday, the scene outside the sprawling New Orleans convention center was a hellish tableau as perhaps 25,000 people jammed the lobbies, sidewalks and median strips, looters wandered through a smashed Starbucks, and the body of a young man lay under a black cloth in the road.

But at 10 a.m., fleets of buses pulled up two blocks from the center, and thousands of people ran to stand in line. Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters began ferrying the infirm and ailing from a parking lot.

By late afternoon, the convention center was nearly deserted. So was the Louisiana Superdome, the scene of so much suffering earlier in the week. Convoys of vans and school buses patrolled the streets of the city, trying to find refugees from Hurricane Katrina.

They located only a few, and fewer agreed to leave.

"The people we find, they don't want to go; they want to stay," said the Rev. Robby Williams, a Baptist minister who organized a 38-van convoy from Northeast Louisiana to pick up weary survivors of Hurricane Katrina. By about 5:30 p.m., they didn't have a single passenger

New Orleans was becoming a ghost city.

It was, it seemed, a demonstration of the awesome resources at the command of state and federal officials. And it was an example, some angry refugees said, of what authorities should have done in the first place.

"There's nothing you can do about Mother Nature," said Dwight Williams, a 34-year-old truck driver who had stayed behind in New Orleans and was trapped by floodwaters because there wasn't enough room for him in his sister's car. "But there should have been a plan. You expect your leaders to be a little better prepared."

Unlike the Superdome, the convention center was not an official shelter for storm victims. Only after people started being rescued from flooded homes did authorities direct them to the center rather than to the crowded, chaotic stadium, about a mile north.

But as in the Superdome, where evacuation was being completed yesterday, conditions in the convention center quickly deteriorated.

At first, the only food and water was dropped from helicopters. Restrooms flooded, and people began to relieve themselves in elevator shafts, parking garages or in the street.

Many people tried to keep their encampments of folding chairs and blankets neat and swept clean, but there were few trash bins and no bags. Rotting garbage quickly piled up.

Witnesses said a young African-American man stepped toward a New Orleans police car on the street outside the center about 11:30 a.m. Friday and was shot once in the stomach. He died on the spot in front of hundreds of terrified witnesses, many of them children.

Police returned a few hours later to investigate the death, witnesses said, but left the body where it lay - and remained, until the early afternoon yesterday.

Some witnesses said they didn't see the young man make threatening gestures. But as curious passers-by lifted the makeshift shroud, they saw a pair of red-handled scissors near his left hand.

Some of the only people not shocked by the conditions at the convention center were members of the Arkansas National Guard's 153rd Infantry Brigade from Walnut Ridge. The brigade had just returned from a year in Baghdad, It arrived in New Orleans on Thursday to provide security near the center.

"This is everyday life in Iraq," said Staff Sgt. Darien Nicholson of Jonesboro, Ark. "This is their normal lifestyle. Clean water? A dry, safe place to sleep? They don't have that, either."

Regular food deliveries, which began Friday, helped calm the restive crowd - which had stampeded several times, frightened by reports that the levee behind the center was failing or by the sounds of gunshots.

But many said Friday was one of the worst nights since the storm hit Monday. Refugees said law enforcement officers promised several times that buses would arrive soon to take them to temporary shelters in Texas or Florida, but none arrived.

Then, when darkness came, the refugees said, the center's power failed. People said the quarrels and screams only grew worse in the darkness both outside and inside the reeking, cavernous structure.

"Yesterday, I was so positive, I went up to people and told them the buses are coming," said Sue Giordano, 52, as tears coursed down her cheeks. "But when you realize you have to go back and sleep on the sidewalk, with all the crime and the noise, well, it's heartbreaking."

Some refugees commandeered rooms in a Marriott Hotel at the Convention Center, only to be driven out early Friday morning by SWAT teams armed with automatic weapons. Within hours, though, police abandoned the hotel, and looters replaced the temporary residents.

Many refugees were furious at officials who blamed them for not heeding warnings and evacuating.

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