Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Tensions inside the Superdome rise along with refugees' ranks

The rescuers on the boat only had room for Lee Coleman's wife, his two daughters and his mother-in-law.
So he trudged - more than two miles - through black water coated in rainbow-tinged oil. Past the abandoned cars swallowed by the flood waters. Past a single blue flip-flop floating next to the bombed-out bank.
His final destination: the Louisiana Superdome, the designated refuge of last resort from Hurricane Katrina's onslaught. On Tuesday, though, the signature stadium was transformed into the city's Alamo.
Surrounding it was the enemy - millions of gallons of water from Lake Pontchartrain that flooded most of the city......"At home, the water was 6 feet high," sighed a defeated Coleman, carrying only one plastic grocery bag of snacks.
Coleman was one of hundreds of storm refugees who flocked to the Superdome in scenes that seemed biblical in scope.
They came loaded in the backs of fatigue green and desert tan Army trucks. Some arrived on the backs of commandeered U-Haul trucks, while others were dropped off after being ferried from rooftops by Coast Guard helicopters.
Many more just walked, or waded, into a dome that was growing more tense and chaotic than the previous day, when few realized that the flooding - and the ranks inside the shelter - would increase dramatically.
The tally of people was expected to swell to as many as 20,000 - double the number who arrived the day before. And officials are mulling whether to evacuate the stadium.
On Monday, the turf adorned with the New Orleans Saints logo was off-limits to refugees, but on Tuesday officials allowed the restless to roam the field. Barricades portioned the field into thirds, allowing teenagers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play touch football where the pros do.
As if from alien spaceships, two fierce shafts of light beamed down from the huge holes in the dome caused by Katrina's 100-mph winds. Kids jumped in and out of them.
But for most, the stay at the dome was far from fun.
The stadium aisles, where footballs fans normally buy beer on Sundays, were crammed with people who had not showered in days. The air was sour and suffocating.
People waited, not always patiently, in long lines for a chance to go out onto the outdoor stadium patio, where officials allowed them to smoke, mingle and breathe some fresh air.
Inside, babies napped quietly amid the bustle. One woman, lost and overwhelmed, bawled uncontrollably.
At least two people have died from apparent heart attacks, said Assistant Police Chief Warren Riley. Another man died after a plunge from the upper-level seats - a possible suicide.
Louisiana National Guardsmen fashioned a makeshift triage unit on the loading docks of the stadium. Military and civilian doctors rushed from cot to cot, monitoring oxygen levels of storm victims.
Tuesday morning, as waters began rising from the breaches in the levee system, emergency personnel worked with soldiers to evacuate the worst of the sick to Baton Rouge. Medical supplies were low, and the dome was not a hospital.
"We've just exhausted our resources," said Keith Carter, the director of Paffard Medical Services. "We need to evacuate."
Patients from a mental clinic lay in the olive green Army cots. One was completely naked, tied to the cot by his feet and hands, rolling his head from side to side. Another became so agitated that he had to be restrained by a soldier, his hands bounded by tape.
Nearby sat Army Chaplin Lt. Col. Walter Austin, rubbing the back of an elderly woman hooked up to an oxygen tank, her face twisted in tears. He whispered reassurances in her ear.
Since the storm, Austin - a Catholic chaplain wearing a beret adorned with a cross - had been reassuring the weary refugees at the dome.
"All people are going to be distressed, and the elderly get very distressed when they have a traumatic change in their lives," he said.
That morning, as the flood waters rose, he held a religious service. More than 1,000 people attended......Out on the loading dock, Jose Mejilla, 45, said he walked several miles from his home to the Superdome, carrying a duffel bag with his only belongings. He slouched as he gratefully devoured an Army meal-ready-to-eat.
"I never thought I would see New Orleans this way," he said in Spanish. "I feel like I'm dead."


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