Superdome evacuation disrupted after shots fired

Updated: September 2, 2005, 12:52 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- At the front of the line, the weary refugees waded through ankle-deep water, grabbed a bottle of water from state troopers and happily hopped on buses that would deliver them from the horrendous conditions of the Superdome.

Red Cross

At the back end of the line, people jammed against police barricades in the rain. Refugees passed out and had to be lifted hand-over-hand overhead to medics. Pets were not allowed on the bus, and when a police officer confiscated a little boy's dog, the child cried until he vomited. "Snowball, snowball," he cried.

The scene played out Thursday as the plodding procession out of the Superdome entered its second day -- an evacuation that became more complicated as thousands more storm victims showed up at the arena.

Capt. John Pollard of the Texas Air Force National Guard said 20,000 people were in the dome when the evacuation efforts began. By Thursday afternoon, the number had swelled to about 30,000. Pollard said people poured into the Superdome because they believe it's the best place to get a ride out of town.

The refugees began arriving Thursday at the Astrodome in Houston, where they got a shower, a hot meal and a cool place to sleep.

"I would rather have been in jail," Janice Jones said in obvious relief at being out of the dome. "I've been in there seven days and I haven't had a bath. They treated us like animals. Everybody is scared."

Miranda Jones, her daughter, was standing next to her, carrying her father's ashes -- the only thing they were able to save from her house before Hurricane Katrina blasted New Orleans.

After accepting more than eleven-thousand refugees, officials say the Astrodome is full. So they've begun sending buses to other shelters in the Houston area.

Superdome
AP Photo/Eric GayA man pushes his bicycle through the waters around the Superdome to try to get into the mandatory evacuation from the city.

An angry Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans' emergency operations, watched the slow exodus from the Superdome on Thursday morning and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency response was inadequate. The chaos at the nearby New Orleans Convention Center was considerably worse than the Superdome, with an angry mob growing increasingly violent and few options for refugees to leave the scene.

"This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control," Ebbert said. "We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans."

By early afternoon, a line of people a half-mile long snaked from the Superdome through the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel, then to where buses waited. State troopers, making every effort to be cheerful, handed out bottles of water and tried to keep families and groups together.

"I need three," a burly state trooper called out. "I need four."

At one point, the guards held up the line so a young teen at the front could go get her sister, farther back.

The situation in the back of the line was vastly different.

National Guardsmen stood side by side with rifles. Luggage, bags of clothes, pillows, blankets were strewn in the puddles.

After a teenager was taken away by police for fighting, Capt. John Pallerre of the Texas Air Force National Guard told the crowd on public address: "We can't have people fighting. I have kids here who are crying and frightened and can't find their parents. Be adults. We're going to get you out of here. It takes a while. I'm not god. If I was, you'd all be home with your family."

At one point a man held a tiny baby high over his head. A woman pointed to an elderly man in a wheelchair -- hoping to get the attention of National Guard troops who were taking the old and infirm to buses first.

A woman in tank top and shorts, her teeth chattering, was taken from the sea of people and into the line heading through a shopping mall and conference center and back out to buses waiting blocks from the dome. She cuddled her baby, who wore only a diaper.

The first buses left the Superdome late Wednesday, and officials in Texas said 2,000 people had already arrived at the Astrodome, some 350 miles away, by late morning Thursday. Besides the 25,000 or so hurricane refugees being brought to Houston, officials said another 25,000 would be taken to San Antonio and other locations.

National Guard at Superdome
AP Photo/ U.S. Navy- Photographer's Mate Airman Jeremy L. GrishamA National Guard utility truck trudged through floodwaters to bring supplies to the Superdome.

The Astrodome's new residents will be issued passes that will let them leave and return as they please, something that wasn't permitted in New Orleans. Organizers also plan to find ways to help the refugees contact relatives.

The state of Texas also agreed to take in an additional 25,000 Louisiana refugees and plans to house them in San Antonio, Gov. Rick Perry's office said Thursday.

But New Orleans was descending further into chaos Thursday. Corpses lay abandoned in street medians.

Medical helicopters and law officers came under fire. Storm survivors battled for seats on the buses that would carry them away from the chaos. The tired and hungry seethed, saying they had been forsaken.

New Orleans descended into anarchy Thursday, a city seemingly ready to explode at any moment.

"We are out here like pure animals," the Rev. Issac Clark said outside the New Orleans Convention Center, where he and other evacuees had been waiting for buses for days amid the filth and the dead.

Four days after Hurricane Katrina roared in with a devastating blow that inflicted potentially thousands of deaths, the frustration and anger mounted, despite the promise of 1,400 National Guardsmen a day to stop the looting, plans for a $10 billion recovery bill in Congress and a government relief effort President Bush called the biggest in U.S. history.

About 15,000 to 20,000 people who had taken shelter at New Orleans convention center to await buses grew increasingly hostile. Police Chief Eddie Compass said he sent in 88 officers to quell the situation at the building, but they were quickly driven back by an angry mob.

"We have individuals who are getting raped, we have individuals who are getting beaten," Compass said. "Tourists are walking in that direction and they are getting preyed upon."

A military helicopter tried to land at the convention center several times to drop off food and water. But the rushing crowd forced the choppers to back off. Troopers then tossed the supplies to the crowd from 10 feet off the ground and flew away.

In hopes of defusing the situation at the convention center, Mayor Ray Nagin gave the refugees permission to march across a bridge to the city's unflooded west bank for whatever relief they could find. But the bedlam made that difficult.

"This is a desperate SOS," Nagin said in a statement. "Right now we are out of resources at the convention center and don't anticipate enough buses."

At least seven bodies were scattered outside the convention center, a makeshift staging area for those rescued from rooftops, attics and highways. The sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement.

An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered up by a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.

With no air conditioning and little electricity, the heat and stench inside the Superdome were unbearable for the nearly 25,000 housed there. As the water pressure lowered, toilets backed up. The stink was so bad many medical workers wore masks as they walked around.

Dr. Kevin Stephens Sr., in charge of the special needs shelter at the dome, described the Superdome and a nearby arena as a health department's nightmare.

"These conditions are atrocious," he said. "We'll take trucks, planes, boats, anything else -- I have to get these people out of here."

The plan to turn the Astrodome into a shelter grew out of a conversation between Perry and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The Astrodome's schedule has been cleared through December. The dome, once the home of the Houston Astros, is used on occasion for corporate parties and hospitality events leading up to football games, such as the Big 12 championship, played at neighboring Reliant Stadium. The Astrodome hasn't been used for professional sports in years.

"We're buying time until we can figure something out," said William Lokey, chief coordinator for FEMA.

Some members of the New Orleans Hornets' front office also relocated to Houston and are working out of the Toyota Center, according to various reports. Also, The New York Times reported Thursday that NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik sent an e-mail to all the teams in the NBA to prepare them for the possible relocation of the Hornets.

"Even if the arena is operable, it still may be impossible to play games in New Orleans for some time," Granik wrote in the e-mail message, a copy of which was obtained by the Times.

The NFL's Saints will be based in San Antonio for a while. It's highly unlikely they will be able to hold their home opener Sept. 18 at the Superdome -- and may not be able to play there at all this season.

The Saints escaped the hurricane by flying with their families last weekend to San Jose, Calif. New Orleans plays at Oakland on Thursday night in its final exhibition game.

Numerous members of the sports community offered their assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina. The NFL and the New York Yankees each donated $1 million to the American Red Cross on Wednesday.

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said Wednesday that he will match donations up to $1 million given during the team's preseason game against Tampa Bay on Thursday night. All donations will go to the American Red Cross.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair teamed with Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre and arranged to fill a tractor-trailer with relief supplies bound for Mississippi on Wednesday. McNair also asked his fans to help him raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. McNair, who has a home near Favre's in Hattiesburg, Miss., is offering to swap an autographed photo for each minimum donation of $100 to his foundation.

The Packers also flew to Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday for their final preseason game -- but only after loading the team airplane with generators and other emergency supplies to help the victims of the hurricane.

Serena Williams announced she would donate $100 for every ace she has the rest of the year, beginning with her two in Wednesday night's second-round victory at the U.S. Open.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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