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Sunday, September 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shelter from storm became "darkest hole in the world"

Chicago Tribune

NEW ORLEANS — To people who stayed in either of the two battered buildings, it was a "horrible prison." Or "the darkest hole in the world." Or "the place I want to forget." Mostly, though, they just called it hell.

Roughly one mile apart, the Louisiana Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center stand like gigantic, derelict castles bracketing the ruined business district of New Orleans. Today, they are eerily lifeless except for workers cleaning up their fouled grounds — nauseating debris fields of human feces, soiled clothes, shoes and rotting Army rations.

But for five terrible days starting Aug. 29, the two megastructures — ostentatious symbols of American popular culture and commercial might — swarmed with at least 22,000 frantic people and perhaps many more, all victims of the massive floods that Katrina unleashed in her wake, and all despairing of hope for government resupply or rescue.

"The stuff that happened inside there, my Lord, I never thought could happen in this country," said Michael Clark, 44, one of the thousands of mostly poor New Orleans residents who sought refuge at the Superdome. "It was like the whole world was ending. I don't want to see that building ever again."

What happened inside the towering walls of these two buildings has become one of the iconic images of government bungling in the aftermath of Katrina: throngs of sweat-drenched refugees spilling from edifices never designed to hold them, pleading to be taken away, begging for water and food, stepping over the unattended dead — all while rumors of gang rapes, murders and mayhem swirled from the darkened buildings behind them.

It likely will be months before investigators fully piece together what went on inside.

But Tribune interviews with survivors, law-enforcement officers and military forces reveal how, for one week after the hurricane, life in the two teeming urban shelters quickly devolved into a Hobbesian world of ruthless predators preying on the weak.

While the more gruesome allegations of gang rapes have not been verified, more than a dozen eyewitness accounts confirmed other acts of brutality.

Survivors told how young toughs commandeered access to relief supplies and tauntingly resold them to the starving masses. People were robbed and killed. Criminal gangs openly battled with fist and gun at the so-called havens.

And — in a nightmarish version of New Orleans' famed Mardi Gras Carnival — looters trashed the multimillion-dollar facilities, with some thieves even donning concessionaire uniforms at the Superdome and cheekily hawking stolen pizzas.

"I'm really not outraged at the people," said Capt. John Bryson of the New Orleans police, whose 80 to 90 officers were vastly outnumbered by crowds of up to 15,000 at the convention center. "Ninety percent of the folks were just reduced to an animal existence, trying to survive.

"I'm outraged at being abandoned there by the government," Bryson said acidly. "I felt totally helpless."

Day 1: Monday, Aug. 29

Shoving matches

and long lines

Pummeled by Katrina, the neglected levees around New Orleans sprang their first leaks in the early hours Monday, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Most low-lying neighborhoods were flooded 16 to 20 hours later. Helicopters or boats began rescuing people from rooftops and delivering them to the Superdome, the aging, 70,000-seat home of the New Orleans Saints football team, where several thousand had taken shelter before the storm hit.

The family of Derrick Jones Sr., 35, a bail bondsman from the 9th Ward, was among the evacuees. After watching fish swim through the rising waters inside his attic, Jones smashed a hole in his roof with a two-by-four and helped his wife, Carla, and their four children squeeze through.

After arriving at the Superdome, the exhausted family — dressed in the same bedclothes they would wear for five days — staked out their turf in a crowded hallway on the stadium's third level, between the private suites of Saints players Joe Horn and Aaron Brooks.

"We were trying to stay in spirit," Jones said. "Everyone had their area, and they named it."

What Jones and at least 10,000 other storm victims didn't know was that the Superdome, while designated by local officials as a shelter of last resort, never was meant to hold storm refugees for long.

According to news reports, neither the state nor the city had planned to stock the facility with water or food. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had hastily offloaded 90,000 liters of water and 43,776 military meals, or MREs, at the sports facility, an inadequate supply for the swelling mass of evacuees.

"We could never get more supplies through. I don't really know why," said Lt. Col. Gary Nunn, 53, of the Louisiana National Guard, a senior officer on duty at the dome. "So we had to start rationing the food early, giving people only one meal packet and a bottle of water twice a day."

The chow lines grew to be two hours long. Exhausted, elderly people were unable to keep their places, Nunn said. Shoving matches erupted.

Meanwhile, more stunned and sodden storm victims kept arriving from the new swamp of New Orleans.

Day 2: Tuesday, Aug. 30

"Things got crazy in there"

By Tuesday afternoon, society in the Superdome was unraveling.

Baking under the Southern sun without electric power, the cavernous enclosure was a dim sauna whose only ventilation consisted of two car-size holes clawed into the roof by Katrina's winds. The crowds were eager to leave. Some didn't believe the city was still flooded; the National Guard and police were keeping them inside the building.

Then the toilets, powered by inoperative electric pumps, backed up.

"The men were stoolin' in the toilets 'til they were overflowing," said evacuee Clark, who had arrived at the Superdome with his sick father after blasting through his home's roof with a shotgun.

"Then they went beside the walls. Then they filled the urinals. They were peeing and pooing into the sinks and garbage cans and behind the concession stands. You got it all over your shoes. You were tracking it all over the place."

The horrible stench forced the National Guard to finally allow thousands of retching people to move outside the noxious dome.

And that's when the chaos inside the lightly patrolled stadium ratcheted up, witnesses said.

"Things got crazy in there," said Percilla Talbert, 30, a rail-thin smoker with four gold front teeth and three children. "Everyone with good sense was fearful. The atmosphere in the place was fear."

Talbert, whose family couldn't leave the city because her car was broken down, watched gangs of angry, young men bash their way through the walls of the stadium's third-floor luxury suites. Other witnesses saw determined crowds smash into the concession stands and cold-drink machines using bicycle racks as battering rams.

"This was for survival," Talbert said. "They were getting food, passing it out. They didn't have enough MREs."

And as the hunger and thirst deepened, so did the violence.

Even earlier Tuesday, in fact, the first reports of rapes had surfaced. No victim except the popular New Orleans singer Charmaine Neville has come forward to report being sexually assaulted at the Superdome.

But the eyewitness accounts of three storm survivors coincided on several points: Sometime during the wee hours of Tuesday, a gang of men, some white, some black, attacked another man on the third floor for allegedly raping a child. Accounts differ as to whether the victim was a 7-year-old boy or a 15-year-old girl.

"They was beating that guy like it was no tomorrow," Jones said. "The [military police] came and got him. Took him downstairs."

But Nunn, of the National Guard, recalled nobody being taken into custody.

He said stories of rapes in bathrooms were burning through the beleaguered stadium like wildfire.

"I had guys looking for the alleged rapists, but we never found any," he said. "But our hands were full with 1,000 other things, too."

They were about to get much fuller.

Meanwhile, 10 blocks away, thousands more Katrina survivors were being diverted from the Superdome to a second gargantuan emergency shelter, the convention center.

Day 3:

Wednesday, Aug. 31

Gunshots and death

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is a hangarlike, 3,300-foot-long building named after a former New Orleans mayor.

The mayhem there was, if anything, worse than at the Superdome: Whereas several hundred guardsmen and a sizable contingent of city police had disarmed the public at the sprawling stadium, there were no such security measures at the convention center.

Nor was the center, never intended to hold evacuees, provisioned with the least food or water.

Almost immediately, the crowd, which swelled to perhaps 15,000, became desperate, then explosive. Criminals prowled.

"I can't remember how many times we responded to shots fired," said Capt. Jeffery Winn, 43, the haggard chief of the New Orleans SWAT team. "We'd charge into the building in full combat mode, 360-degree security. We'd see muzzle flashes from thugs firing at us inside, and chase them through the darkness, then get the hell out."

Terrified families fell to the center's decorative magenta carpets in fetal positions during these shootouts, Winn said, adding that they were screaming, "Help! Please save us!"

Later, Winn would find a corpse with stab wounds in the building.

The sweltering center was without power. Some of the elderly and the very young were dying quietly of dehydration in the building's countless halls, nooks and crannies.

One body was left in a wheelchair by an entrance to the plush La Louisiane Ballroom. Bereaved family members, aided by strangers, carried other dead, including infants, to a second-floor office that became a makeshift morgue.

"The recurrent theme in my mind, by Wednesday, was that no cavalry was coming, so we had to hold things together ourselves," said Dr. Gregory Henderson, 43, a pathologist who had been attending a medical conference at the nearby Ritz-Carlton Hotel when Katrina struck, and who volunteered his services to the city's overwhelmed first responders.

"I saw people dying at the convention center, I saw people already dead, and there was nothing — nothing — I could do because I had no tools," a still-shaken Henderson said last week. "That was the hell of the day. Then the night would fall, and it became like a Stephen King novel. These predators were holed up in the center, and they came out and preyed on the people."

Henderson said evacuees told of storm-sodden girls being dragged inside the blackened building and raped, then thrown back out. Again, however, no witnesses or victims could be found to corroborate such widespread claims.

Day 4: Thursday, Sept. 1

Inflammable despair

By Thursday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called the situation at the Superdome critical and made his "desperate SOS" to federal authorities for more transport to evacuate the seething stadium.

Talbert, whose bum car prevented her from escaping Katrina, managed to snag a precious seat on one of the first buses. A woman in the sweaty line in front of her, she said, miscarried before getting a ride.

Inside the stadium, meanwhile, the mood was sinking to even uglier depths.

Racial tensions flared when a group of 62 tourists, many from Britain, were perceived to be receiving preferential treatment from authorities, a military official said. The frightened group banded together in the stadium's midfield seating area, fending off circling gangs of furious youths, until the National Guard extracted them.

By now, a National Guardsman inspecting the lower levels of the arena was shot in the leg by an unknown assailant. The atmosphere of despair had become so inflammable that the small guard contingent worried about being overrun by angry people.

"We had to essentially blockade ourselves on the bottom floor of the dome on Claiborne Street to keep them from attacking us," said Nunn, an Iraq war veteran. "It was pretty touch-and-go. But what the folks didn't understand was, we were all in the same boat."

The only silver lining was the demand for MREs was dropping. So many concessions and suites had been looted, the food crisis eased somewhat.

"The day before, people were offering $10 for my MRE," evacuee Clark said. "Now they were wandering around selling or giving away hot dogs and pizzas. One guy broke into a beer stand and was selling it for $3 a cup. He even put on the hat!"

Day 5: Friday, Sept. 2

Staggering exodus grows

On Friday, National Guard units began arriving in force in New Orleans. Bus convoys began hauling away the staggering inhabitants of the Superdome en masse.

Earlier, at the convention center, three cars filled with thugs — women as well as men — drove past the distressed throngs of filthy, distraught survivors, firing pistols into the terrified crowds.

Police Capt. Bryson and his few men looted baby formula from shattered downtown stores to give to hungry infants.

"We helped in what little way we could," said the officer, who later had to be hospitalized for exhaustion. "I saw terrible things. Just terrible things. But I also saw people sharing what little food they had. There was bravery and kindness."

This was the day President Bush first toured the areas gutted by Katrina. He called the government response to the hurricane "not acceptable." More than 50 nations pledged to help with disaster assistance, including even impoverished Afghanistan.

Back at the thoroughly trashed convention center, Henderson, the doctor, was trying to save the life of an 8-year-old boy suffering a severe asthma attack.

"I just sat there and held him for a while and looked into his eyes," Henderson said. "He was terrified of dying, and I was trying to focus him, to talk him down. There was nothing else I could do."

As far as he knows, the boy survived.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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