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Saturday, September 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"I just went from hell to Vegas"

Los Angeles Times

LAS VEGAS — This, a city constructed essentially of malls, is an odd refuge from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. Here, time stands still and air-conditioned air is supposedly pumped with extra oxygen, the statues speak and the blue skies overhead are just authentic-looking frescoes. There's no such thing as too much.

"Forget your watch," a sign at the airport reads. "A.M. and P.M. are interchangeable."

Yet this week, for dozens of New Orleans firefighters, paramedics and police officers, Sin City became a way station to the rest of the world, the one untouched by tragedy. More than 45 emergency workers arrived Tuesday evening, the first of 400 scheduled to visit in the next six weeks. They came with their kids and spouses in tow, still in the floodwater-soaked uniforms they'd worn for a week, still dazed from their ordeal. An additional 160 were expected today.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman invited them for a four-day, all-expenses-paid reprieve from their plight, offering his city's casinos and hotels, stage shows and buffets. This charity came at the request of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who, after the suicides of two police officers and desertion by scores of other first responders, hoped to salvage the remaining crews with some R&R.

"I just went from hell to Vegas," paramedic Keeley Williams said on Thursday. "It was almost overwhelming. ... The hotels. The lights. The amount of people. It's almost like it's not real. Like we're not really here. Like we're in a movie or something."

Surrounded by devastation back home, some on the front lines have found the stress too much to bear. Hundreds are unaccounted for, with some simply abandoning their posts.

Many received checkups and counseling at the Emergency Management Services compound in New Orleans before heading out.

For many people in this first group, the journey to Las Vegas started Sunday when Nagin offered a furlough to first responders living in a makeshift compound near the Mississippi River. Many of them had been working nonstop since Aug. 28 with no power, communication or transportation.

"Nothing to go back to"

One group of paramedics spent days moving from hotel to hotel, running from the rising water and gun-toting gangs, until they were airlifted from a highway overpass by the National Guard and taken to the Superdome. There they were confronted by swarms of desperate people but had no supplies to help them.

"I just saw my co-workers losing it, shouting and screaming 'What's happening?' and 'What are we going to do?' " said Ronald Mason, a paramedic visiting Las Vegas. "We weren't mentally prepared."

All this chaos seemed like someone else's life on Thursday as the group toured the city in air-conditioned vans, courtesy of the Las Vegas Fire and Rescue Department. They were all homeless, the most tangible thing in their lives the scraps of news coming from their neighborhoods. Was Gentilly still underwater? Did the looters leave anything intact at Engine House 24? Where would the kids start school? Did everybody get out OK?

"The majority of the people here have nothing to go back to," said Jean Arnon, who joined her husband, Alphonse, a New Orleans arson investigator. The Arnons were lucky, she said. Their families were safe. And the couple has a place to live in the short-term: the rectory of their son's church in New Iberia, La.

As they rode past strip malls and billboards, the Las Vegas sun shone 107 degrees. But it's dry heat, they assured themselves. None of that God-awful Louisiana humidity. "I don't even sweat here," Alphonse said.

Inside their host hotel, the Boulder Station Hotel and Casino, about 10 minutes east of the Strip, it felt like a cool, crisp October day in Maine, albeit a day streaked with stale cigarette smoke and busy with the hypnotic chimes of slot machines.

When everything changes

It's a place designed to dislocate even the most grounded visitor. And for the folks from New Orleans, that wasn't an altogether bad thing. Here, they could blend in with the other tourists. They walked the Strip, rode the roller coaster at New York-New York, saw the risqué Broadway show "Avenue Q."

They marveled that life outside their devastated city carried on as usual, that people were still vacationing, still taking for granted all the conveniences the hurricane had seized from them.

"All this could change before your eyes," said Mason, the paramedic, who came with his wife, Barbara, and 19-year-old daughter Renee.

Mason remembers what it's like to feel lucky. This time last month, he had three cars, a house in a nice neighborhood, a daughter in college and a wife with a good job. As he toured the lobbies of Las Vegas with his family, he couldn't help feeling a little wiser than everyone else.

After a hot shower, a good night's sleep and an all-you-can-eat breakfast, after they called faraway relatives, filled their prescriptions, washed clothes, visited doctors, stocked up on socks and underwear, the rescue workers began to revive. They pieced together their experiences — the screaming wind, the rising water, the snipers, the dying babies — and tried to figure out just how they landed here.

Some tried not to watch TV because it was too painful to see news reports from New Orleans. But they were still haunted by a creeping sense of guilt that they'd abandoned their city, even for a short time.

"My co-workers are still there, dealing with God knows what," paramedic Jeanne Dunn said.

Dunn said she reluctantly agreed to come to Las Vegas, where her brother lives. She was grateful for the showers, the beds and the clean clothes. But the time away hadn't been all that relaxing. Yes, she'd visited the Strip and planned to see Barry Manilow, but Dunn said she spent much of her time on the phone to friends back home.

Today, as the first group of workers heads back to New Orleans, Las Vegas welcomes the next wave of first responders.

Five hotels — Station Casinos, the Palms, Boyd Gaming, the Hard Rock and Fitzgerald's Las Vegas — have lined up to offer free room and board for the workers during the coming weeks. The Las Vegas Hilton donated tickets to Manilow's performance.

The city also housed about 500 evacuees and dispatched its own paramedics, police officers and firefighters to New Orleans to help with rescues.

Back in New Orleans, TV self-help guru "Dr. Phil" McGraw showed up yesterday at the makeshift command center in front of Harrah's Casino downtown at the request of some officers, he said.

McGraw said 80 percent of the city's police officers have no homes and still are going to work, separated from family and knowing they have no home to return to.

"We've got to lift their spirits, let them know that there is an end to this," he said. "It's getting better. It's starting to turn as the waters recede."

The Church of Scientology has set up a tent there for volunteer ministers who are giving counseling, massages and anything else the officers might need. Actress Kirstie Alley paid a visit yesterday to the command center to talk to the officers and military personnel.

Additional information from The Associated Press and The Dallas Morning News

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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