NEW ORLEANS – The cavalry finally arrived.
With a cigar-chomping general in front, a camouflaged-green convoy of at least three-dozen troop vehicles and supply trucks rolled through floodwaters Friday into a desperate city where some storm survivors had died waiting for food, water and medicine.
“Thank you, Jesus!” Leschia Radford shrieked amid a throng of tens of thousands outside the New Orleans Convention Center.
Some people threw their arms heavenward and others nearly fainted with joy as the trucks and hundreds of soldiers arrived in the punishing midday heat in a scene that looked like a relief mission to a Third World country.
But there was also anger and profane jeers from many in the crowd of nearly 20,000 who questioned why they had to wait four days after Hurricane Katrina and threaten to riot before they could get anything to eat or drink.
“They should have been here days ago,” said 46-year-old Michael Levy, whose words were echoed by those around him yelling, “Hell, yeah!”
“We’ve been sleeping on the … ground like rats,” Levy added. “I say burn this whole … city down.”
The soldiers’ arrival-in-force came amid angry complaints from the mayor and others that the federal government had bungled the relief effort and let people die in the streets for lack of food, water or medicine.
“The people of our city are holding on by a thread,” Mayor Ray Nagin said in a statement to CNN. “Time has run out. Can we survive another night? And who can we depend on? Only God knows.” Earlier, in a rambling radio interview, Nagin erupted in tears and anger, saying, “Get off your asses and let’s do something.”
President Bush took a land and air tour of hard-hit areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and admitted of the relief effort: “The results are not enough.”
“What is not working right, we’re going to make it right,” he pledged during a stop in Mobile, Ala. Congress passed a $10.5 billion disaster aid package, and Bush quickly signed it.
By nightfall Friday, the mayor’s tone had changed. Nagin returned from a meeting with President Bush a picture of calm.
“I feel much better. I feel like we’ve gotten everyone’s attention, and hopefully they’ll continue to do what they’re doing,” he said.
What were perhaps the first signs of real hope for recovery came on a day that was ushered in with a thunderous explosion before daybreak and scattered downtown building fires that only confirmed the sense that New Orleans was a city in utter collapse.
The explosion at a warehouse along the Mississippi River about 15 blocks from the French Quarter jostled storm refugees awake and sent a pillar of acrid gray smoke over a city that the mayor has said could be awash with thousands of corpses. Other large fires erupted downtown.
Into that maelstrom came the convoy, with flatbed trucks pushing axle-deep through the trash-strewn waters carrying huge crates, pallets and bags of relief supplies, including Meals Ready to Eat. Soldiers in fatigues sat in the backs of open-top trucks, their rifles pointing skyward.
“The cavalry is and will continue to arrive,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, commander of the National Guard. He said 7,000 Guardsmen would be in the city by today.
Behind the military vehicles came a line of dozens of air-conditioned coaches that began pulling into the Louisiana Superdome, where a vast crowd of bedraggled people – many of them trapped there since the weekend – stretched around the entire perimeter of the building, waiting for their deliverance from the heat, the filth and the gagging stench in the stadium.
But another commander warned it may yet be days more before evacuations from the convention center begin, because the first priority is bringing in food and water.
“As fast as we can, we’ll move them out,” said Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said. “Worse things have happened to America,” he added. “We’re going to overcome this, too. It’s not our fault. The storm came and flooded the city.”
‘I know I’m saved’
Within minutes of the soldiers’ arrival at the convention center, they set up six food and water lines. The crowd was for the most part orderly and grateful for the first major supply convoy to reach the arena.
Diane Sylvester, 49, was the first person through the line, and she emerged with two bottles of water and a pork rib meal. “Something is better than nothing,” she said as she mopped sweat from her brow. “I feel great to see the military here. I know I’m saved.”
At the broken levee along Lake Pontchartrain that swamped nearly 80 percent of New Orleans, helicopters dropped 3,000-pound sandbags into the breach and pilings were being pounded into place to seal off the waters. Engineers also were developing a plan to create new breaches in the levees so that a combination of gravity and pumping and would drain the water out of the city, a process that could take weeks.
Law and order all but broke down in New Orleans over the past few days. Storm refugees reported being raped, shot and robbed, gangs of teenagers hijacked boats meant to rescue them, and frustrated hurricane victims menaced outmanned law officers. Police Chief Eddie Compass admitted even his own officers had taken food and water from stores. Officers were walking off the job by the dozens.
Some of New Orleans’ hospitals, facing dwindling supplies of food, water and medicine, resumed evacuations Friday. Rescuers finally made it into Charity Hospital, the city’s largest public hospital, where gunfire had earlier thwarted efforts to evacuate more than 250 patients.
Behind, they left a flooded morgue where residents had been dropping off bodies. After it reached its capacity of 12, five more corpses were stacked in a stairwell. Other bodies were elsewhere in the hospital.
Administrator Don Smithburg said his numbed staff was forced to subsist on intravenous sugar solutions.
“Some of them are on the brink of unable to cope any longer,” he said.