"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.On 16 September 2005, the Newsmax website reported thus:
Located roughly a mile apart, the 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 the workers cleaning up their fouled grounds, nauseating debris fields of human feces, soiled clothes, shoes and rotting Army rations.
But, for one terrible week starting Aug. 29, the two mega-structures, 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 in downtown New Orleans has already become one of the iconic images of government bungling in the aftermath of Katrina: throngs of sweat-drenched refugees spilling from edifices that were 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…
Tribune interviews with survivors, law-enforcement officers and military forces at the scene reveal how, for one week immediately 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.
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 of the city's low-lying neighborhoods were flooded 16 to 20 hours later. Helicopters or boats began rescuing people from rooftops and delivering them to the Louisiana 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 frantically smashed a hole in his roof with a two-by-four and helped his wife, Carla, and their four children squeeze through. They arrived at the Superdome in the predawn hours Tuesday.
The exhausted family, dressed in the same bedclothes they would wear for the next 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, was never meant to hold storm refugees for long. According to news reports, neither the state of Louisiana nor the city of New Orleans had planned to stock the facility with water or food.
The Federal Emergency Management Agencyhad 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. Belligerent shoving matches erupted. Meanwhile, more stunned and sodden storm victims kept arriving from the new swamp of New Orleans.
Day 2: Tuesday, Aug. 30.
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 anxious to leave. Some didn't even 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 on 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 morning, 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 that 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: August 31.
The Ernest N Morial Convention Center is a hangar-like, 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, at the convention center, there were no such security measures. Nor was the center, which was never intended to hold refugees, 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. The whole place smelled like piss.'
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 multiple stab wounds in the building.
The center was without power, and sweltering. Some of the elderly and the very young were quietly dying 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 happened to be 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,' said a still-shaken Henderson this 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 that refugees 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
By Thursday, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin called the situation at the Superdome critical and made his famous '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 the authorities, a military official said. The frightened foreigners 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…
Day 5: Friday, Sept. 2
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, 10 blocks away 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 collapsed from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized. 'I saw terrible things. Just terrible things'."
"Rescue and recovery workers returning from New Orleans say they've found a shocking number of victims who died - not from Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters - but from gunshot wounds and other forms of violence apparently inflicted by gangs who terrorized the city after the storm struck.What neither The Chicago Tribune nor NewsMax bothers to mention is that those doing the terrorising, looting, shooting, stabbing, raping and killing were almost all black. The bad guys who were not black were mostly of Hispanic origin.
After patrolling the city's mean streets the Monday morning after the floods hit, New Orleans fire and rescue worker Gary Hatch said the first bodies he recovered died of either gunshot wounds or had their throats slit.
'It's hard to believe people could turn against one another like that,' he told an Arizona newspaper. 'We're seeing stuff you don't ever expect to see'…
'Everywhere I went, I saw people with guns in their hands,' said one survivor, describing the mayhem at the New Orleans Convention Center to the Washington Post. 'They were putting guns to people's heads.'
10 to 12 people died in the Superdome alone, city officials said. 'It was horrendous,' recalled Sgt. Tony Small, a major crimes cold-case investigator for the New Orleans Police Department. Small told the New Orleans Times-Picayune he had confirmed that at least four rapes occurred in the Dome. One of victims was a 2-year-old girl.
As death toll figures in New Orleans rapidly approach the 500 mark, it's still too early to tell what percentage died from violence and other non-hurricane related factors. But in a city with a murder rate ten times the national average, officials are beginning to warn that the number of non-storm deaths may be significant…
Don Moreau, spokesman with the East Baton Rouge Coroner's Office, echoed Cataldie, saying, 'A lot of those people didn't die as result of the hurricane. They died from whatever they died of.'
Speaking at a symposium in New York last week, Arthur Jones, chief of disaster recovery for Louisiana's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told the Associated Press that his agency he was caught off guard by the tidal wave of violence. No disaster planner, he said, predicted that people would loot gun stores after the storm and shoot at police, rescue officials and helicopters."
There were no reports at all of misbehaviour by the white residents of New Orleans other than the odd vigilante reprisal, such as that described above, where a racially mixed gang dealt with a black man who had raped a child.
Check out 'Racist 2'.