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
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
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
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
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
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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