Chaos and Confusion in New Orleans

By Michael Martinez Tribune national correspondent

One body was abandoned in a wheelchair at the rear of the Convention Center. Another, clad in a hospital gown, was laid on the concrete beside the wheelchair, in a designated smoking area. A group of people hoisted a third corpse and threw it into a nearby loading dock's trash bin.

Ron and Dottie Thomas of Melbourne, Fla., two of the thousands of refugees lined up waiting to be rescued, watched the unceremonial treatment Thursday of three apparent victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"This whole thing is so disgusting right now," said Ron Thomas, 65, a New Orleans native. "These people probably just died of heat exhaustion."

Three days into Katrina's wake, New Orleans was rife with confusion, chaos and desperation as thousands of families, elderly citizens, mothers with infants and tourists like the Thomases wondered when, if ever, they would be rescued from this city without power and water.

Indeed, passage out of downtown loomed like a mirage Thursday as convoys moved easily in and out of the central business district with only a few instances of knee-deep water.

But authorities were turning back refugees who sought to get out of downtown on foot and traverse a suspended highway and bridge over the Mississippi River, residents said. It seemed the oppressive summer heat and humidity, which brought some rain Thursday, would likely claim the lives of those who dared to walk rather than board a bus.

Authorities have focused on saving people, not retrieving the dead. But while many survivors have been rescued from the floods, they have often had to go without food and water.

As Thomas recounted the experience at the Ernest Morial Convention Center, a military helicopter arrived. He and other refugees bolted toward the swooping aircraft as it landed in the parking lot and dropped off the first food and water Thomas has seen in days.

"This is sad, what they've done to everyone here," said Thomas, after he fought the whirling air blasts and secured a box of military meals ready to eat. "I don't mean to keep stressing this to you, but why would it take three days to deliver food?"

If people don't get food soon, he said, there will be more bodies to discard.

At least one more body was disposed of on the median in front of the Convention Center, bringing the number of those deposited there to at least four.

About a mile away, havoc was evident outside the downtown post office, whose seven-story garage became a temporary shelter Thursday for 150 people seeking refuge from the rain. Moms with babies, frail elderly people in wheelchairs, disabled children -- all watched as a steady pulse of bus and truck convoys passed them by.

The refugees beseeched drivers to pick them up, but the vehicles just splashed by as they stood in knee-deep water on Loyola Avenue.

They were just two blocks from the Superdome, the collection point for displaced individuals to be bused out of downtown, they said. Why couldn't the buses just pick them up?

But military men in camouflage, holding rifles, ordered the people to back away from a bus pickup point at the Superdome complex just down the street. When some buses arrived a day earlier, ostensibly to pick up the women, children and the elderly outside the post office, more agile refugees jumped on the vehicles first, and bus attendants failed to notice, residents said. They left behind amputees, people with diabetes and seniors with heart conditions.

At the post office, refugees swarmed visitors, asking for help for a sick relative in need of medicine or a child who hadn't eaten.

Among those waiting were Paula Jackson, 52, a licensed practical nurse, and her 14-year-old daughter, who is paralyzed on one side and requires a feeding bag. "They're emptying the dome first, and they're leaving us to weather the elements," Jackson said.

"It's like it's at your fingertips, if you just stretch out your arm, but you can't do it," Jackson said of the buses. "I don't picture how they can go to the nation telling what great assistance they're giving us. At ground level, ground zero, it's poor, poor, poor service."

Darrell Dozier, 39, a pizza deliveryman in New Orleans, agreed. "They're ignoring us," he said. "I want to get out of New Orleans. I just can't live like this."

Sadly, Jackson and Dozier could have boarded a bus if they'd known they had only to walk around the garage to an alley between the post office and a bus station. The two-block trek eventually leads to a back entrance to the Superdome, where Louisiana National Guard commanders were directing people to a long line for buses evacuating refugees.

Carrying children, suitcases and even pet cats in cages, people stood in long lines, evoking images of a biblical exodus as they negotiated the filthy water to the Superdome.

Some elderly people were too frail to walk and sat under the bus station's front awning. "I don't know how we're going to leave because there ain't nobody going to do anything for us," said Essie Allen, 65.

As refugees climbed two flights of exterior stairs to the Superdome -- strewn with clothing and brand-new costume jewelry that apparently became too heavy to carry -- Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron, 43, was directing refugees to the nearby New Orleans Center for processing.

Beron admitted that the loss of telecommunications in downtown New Orleans has led to widespread confusion about evacuation.

"It's crazy," said Beron, an attorney. "The sad thing is that there are people all over the city who can't get here."

Copyright 2005 Chicago Tribune

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