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'They Just Left Us Here to Die'

LA Times / David Zucchino | September 4 2005

At the New Orleans convention center, thousands waited days cut off from relief.

On Saturday afternoon, as the Louisiana Superdome was finally emptying out, a lesser-known humanitarian crisis was in its fifth day a few blocks east, at the wrecked, mile-long Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

There, up to 20,000 survivors of Hurricane Katrina, desperate and dehydrated, waited in the punishing midday sun to board buses bound for Texas. By nightfall, almost 19,000 had been evacuated, according to the National Guard.

An unknown number remained, sustained by National Guard troops who handed out bottled water and 70,000 ready-to-eat military meals. Their numbers were swelled by hundreds of evacuees who made their way to the center after hearing that buses were taking people out.

The convention center was a disaster area, with excrement smeared on the floor of the La Louisiane Ballroom and people sprawled on dirty mattresses amid the stench of urine, sweat and rotting garbage. Outside, the street was clogged with trash and evacuees trudging with their meager possessions toward long lines waiting to board buses parked several blocks away.

Like those crammed into and around the Superdome, the convention center dwellers described living in misery among gunshots, looting and filth. They also spoke angrily of being abandoned by emergency authorities — cut off until Friday, they said, from food, water and medicine.

"The only thing the authorities have given us is a bunch of false hope," said Debra Ann Spencer-LeBeau, 49. She said she had survived Tuesday through Friday on scavenged scraps of food inside the cavernous hall. "They just left us here to die."

In a darkened storage area behind the convention halls, two corpses lay under sheets. On the street outside, the corpse of a young man was covered by a black curtain, with a trail of dried blood leading to the curb.

A team of emergency medical technicians, rolling a gurney, rushed down the street but barely looked at the corpse. They were headed to pick up evacuees too old or sick to walk.

"We have to save live people right now," Miles Watts said. "Someone will get the dead later."

Military helicopters were evacuating the sick and elderly from a landing zone on a raised parking lot across from the convention center, forcing those in need of medical attention to stand or squat in the sun. Young and old alike seemed to wilt in the 96-degree heat.

Several people collapsed in the heat and had to be carried to the helicopters. Others were rolled into line in shopping carts and office chairs.

Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of the military emergency relief effort, said he understood the disappointment expressed by evacuees toward relief authorities. But the news media, he said, had exaggerated the dangers.

The Superdome was cleared of nearly all the evacuees by Saturday, said Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, Honore's deputy. National Guard troops at the dome said later that an additional 1,500 to 2,000 evacuees arrived just as authorities were trying to move out the last of those already there.

"Even as the numbers go down, more people come in because they see the buses moving," Landreneau said.

There was a moment of panic about 11:30 a.m., a Guard member said, when snipers fired on helicopters evacuating ill and elderly people from the Superdome. The Guard member said police shot and killed one sniper and arrested a second man. Police officials could not be reached to confirm the report.

At the convention center, thousands of evacuees had dragged chairs from inside the meeting halls and set up impromptu campgrounds on the sidewalk, surrounded by garbage and grime.

Until Louisiana National Guard members arrived Friday with food, water and portable toilets, people survived on what little food and water they had brought with them, or on food taken from the Riverwalk shopping mall.

"Nobody tells us anything," said Dwight Wiliams, 34, a truck driver who came to the center Tuesday after his apartment flooded in East New Orleans. "They ignored us day after day. We had to survive completely on our own."

Not everyone was in a rush to leave. About 200 Vietnamese Americans from the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in the Michoud neighborhood of New Orleans sat patiently on chairs, chatting and playing cards. They had decided to wait until the crowds jamming the bus lines had eased, said Viet Tran, 17.

"We've come through this together, as a group, so we want to wait till we can all go out together as a group," Tran said.

Merna Farbe, 46, whose home in East New Orleans is underwater, was also waiting for the crowds to thin out. To pass the time, she found a broom and began sweeping litter and garbage from a tiny section of the street where her belongings were piled.

"I love a clean home," she said, "and right now, this is my little piece of home."
















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