NEW ORLEANS – A 2-year-old girl slept in a pool of urine. Crack vials littered the restroom. Blood stains the walls next to vending machines smashed by teenagers.
The Louisiana Superdome, once a mighty testament to architecture and ingenuity, became the biggest storm shelter in New Orleans the day before Katrina’s arrival Monday. About 16,000 people eventually settled in. By Wednesday, it had degenerated into unspeakable horror. A few hundred were evacuated from the arena Wednesday, and buses will take away the remaining people today.
“We pee on the floor. We are like animals,” said Taffany Smith, 25, as she cradled her 3-week-old son, Terry. In her right hand she carried a half-full bottle of formula provided by rescuers. Baby supplies are running low; one mother said she was given two diapers and told to scrape them off when they got dirty and use them again.
At least two people, including a child, have been raped as the arena darkened at night. At least three people have died, including one man who jumped 50 feet to his death, saying he had nothing left to live for.
The hurricane left most of southern Louisiana without power, and the arena, which is in the central business district of New Orleans, was not spared. The air-conditioning failed immediately, and a swampy heat filled the dome.
An emergency generator kept some lights on but quickly failed. Engineers have worked feverishly to keep a backup generator running, at one point swimming under the floodwater to knock a hole in the wall to install a new diesel fuel line. But the backup generator, too, is faltering and is almost entirely submerged.
There is no sanitation. The stench is overwhelming. The city’s water supply, which had held up since Sunday, gave out early Wednesday, and toilets in the Dome became inoperable and began to overflow.
“There is feces on the walls,” said Bryan Hebert, 43, who arrived at the dome Monday. “There is feces all over the place.”
The Superdome is patrolled by more than 500 Louisiana National Guard, many of whom carry machine guns as sweaty, smelly people press against metal barricades that keep them from leaving, shouting as the soldiers pass by: “Hey! We need more water! We need help!”
Most of the refugees are given two 9-ounce bottles of water a day and two boxed meals: spaghetti, Thai chicken or jambalaya.
One man tried to escape Wednesday by leaping over a barricade and racing toward the streets. The man was desperate, said National Guard Sgt. Caleb Wells. Everything he was able to bring to the Superdome had been stolen. His house has likely been destroyed, his relatives killed.
“We had to chase him down,” Wells said. “He said he just wanted to get out, to go somewhere. We took him to the terrace and said: ‘Look.’ “
Below, floodwaters were continuing to rise, submerging cars.
“He didn’t realize how bad things are out there,” Wells said. “He just broke down. He started bawling. We took him back inside.”
Thousands of people are still wading to high ground out of the flooding, and most head for the Superdome. Officials have turned hundreds away.
“The conditions are steadily declining,” said Maj. Ed Bush. “The systems have done all they can do. We don’t know how much longer we can hold on. The game now is to squeeze everything we can out of the Superdome and then get out.”
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Wednesday that more than 100 buses are staged just outside the city for today’s evacuation. He had asked officials in Baton Rouge and Lafayette to send all their school buses – about 500 – to New Orleans. If all of the buses make it into the city, Nagin said, the Superdome could be cleared out by nightfall tonight.
Most of the people will go to Houston, where they will stay in the Astrodome. Others will be taken to Louisiana cities that escaped the hurricane.
Between 400 to 500 people, many with critical medical conditions, were airlifted or bused Wednesday from the sports complex; some were taken to Houston.
“They need to see psychologically that this is real,” Nagin said. “They need to see that they are really moving. They need to see people getting on the bus. I want to start to create a sense of hope.”
That will be difficult. There is a local legend that sports teams that have called the Dome home have fared poorly because the facility, which broke ground in 1971, was built atop a cemetery. Perhaps, some said Wednesday, the curse is real.
Inside, a man coughed blood and his shoulders quaked as he was wheeled through the halls. Thousands clutched their meager belongings, sitting in seats normally used for football games or lying on the Astroturf field, its end zones still painted with the word “Saints.”
Some slept outside on the terrace, trying to get shade under a National Guard truck. Young boys who have lost their shoes hopped on the hot pavement to save their scalding feet. Grown men discarded their clothes and walked around in their briefs.
“People started shooting last night,” said Stacey Bodden, 11.
Bodden and six relatives fled their homes in the West Bank – which survived the storm in relatively good condition – to ride out the storm in the Superdome. By Wednesday evening, the family had had enough and was going to try to get out and walk home, through the floodwater and across the Crescent City Connection, a massive bridge spanning the Mississippi River.
Her uncle, David Rodriguez, 28, said he heard at least seven shots Tuesday night and saw one man running past him with a gun. “Don’t shoot,” he told the man, who did not.
“This is a nuthouse,” said April Thomas, 42, who fled to the dome with her 11 children. She has enlisted the older boys to take turns walking patrols at night as the rest of the family sleeps.
“You have to fend people off constantly,” she said. “You have to fight for your life. I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I say is: Where are my babies? Is everyone here?”
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