September 13, 2005

Tulane Student Takes Shelter From Katrina

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Around 6 a.m. Monday morning I woke up after my first night in the Superdome. Within a few minutes of waking up, the electricity and lights in the stadium went out as we had been told they would when Hurricane Katrina first stuck. Generator power was quickly switched on and a significantly fewer number of spotlights were lit. We could hear the incredible howling of the wind across the massive dome roof. Soon the panels in the roof began to rattle wildly and light penetrated the small holes of the bolts and screws that were failing as the panels began to give way. The first roof panel broke off and was followed by a couple of others.

Loud screams of wind and sporadic bursts of pressurized water vapor breached the destroyed parts of the roof. I counted six places where the roof sustained damage. The fear of falling debris and the rain water falling in convinced the military to let people relocate themselves on the first level. The second and third seating levels of the stadium were still cordoned off, as was about a third of the first seating level. The damage to the roof revealed the strength of the hurricane and the vulnerability of the Superdome which many of us inside had underestimated.

The floor and cushioned seats throughout most of the first level seating area became drenched with rainwater. The winds died down by the evening, but even afterwards some people were visibly shaken by the strength of the wind’s force. With the chairs damp, many people moved into the hallway that ringed the field and seating area. In the hallway, from which the already clogged and stinking bathrooms branched off, people lay on cardboard boxes, blankets, and some – like me – on the bare floor.

Our choice that evening was weather to sleep on a damp chair, the wet floor between the seats or in the reeking but dry hallway. Despite the surrounding wretchedness, many were comforted in thinking that the worst was over and that we would leave the next day by around noon. After all, we had just survived the hurricane.

Tuesday morning I woke up and realized my t-shirt was soaked from the water in my chair. We had become familiar with the routine of lining up for about 40 minutes for the daily food handouts at breakfast and dinner. At mealtime, each person would be handed a bottle of water and a military food ration known as a meal ready to eat or MRE.

By late afternoon, water from the broken levees slowly began to pour into the downtown area. We then realized we wouldn’t be leaving the Superdome anytime soon. People were visibly agitated. Many did not know what had become of their loved ones and their homes. People were saying we would be stranded in the Superdome for weeks and already all of the bathrooms were overflowing and there was no running water. Some of the soldiers in front of me expressed concern for their own safety.

On Sunday, many of the soldiers were unarmed. By Monday, most carried side arms and on Tuesday many were carrying automatic rifles.

I was still with the group of about 15 backpackers from the hostel that I had come into the Superdome with. I was the only non-Caucasian among them and began to notice that the group stuck out in the crowd of mostly black people. Some young Caucasian soldiers also seemed to notice our “odd” group and would come sit on the floor and chat with us and later periodically check on us. Other people noticed that we were the only group receiving “special” attention. I came to learn that some soldiers had taken some of the girls from the group on tours of the stadium and even showed them the executive booths that were on the cordoned off second seating level.

At a later point, some soldiers brought the girls bottled water, which usually required a 40-minute wait at breakfast or dinner. Some of the people around the girls loudly and rightfully decried what was blatant preferential treatment. The girls in the group began to seriously fret about their safety and would not let up with their complaining. We had all, by then, heard rumors of fights, rapes, and suicides in the dome. An officer passed by the group and gave one of the girls a walkie-talkie to communicate with him if they felt threatened and warned us not to wander around by ourselves. Sadly, race began playing a role in the treatment people received in the Superdome. I don’t believe that was the policy of the military, but preferential treatment by a few soldiers to white refugees in the Superdome gave the impression of race based preferential treatment by the military. At that point I decided I had had enough and left the group.

I began to aimlessly roam the hallway of the second floor, which was now open to the public, simply observing the situation, as I had done a couple times before. I came across an old lady stretched out on the floor who was trying to get up and was frantically searching for her best-friend whom she referred to as her sister. I assisted two soldiers who took her to a small section of the second seating level which was set aside for people with special needs as the soldiers referred to it. After a few hours the two friends, who it turned out were also roommates, were reunited.

The special needs area mainly contained people brought in from local nursing homes. They included people who were wheelchair bound, delusional, diabetic, asthmatic, and others who had a wide range of other aliments and complications. Some were in an unresponsive vegetative-like state while others needed constant oxygen supply and took wild frightful gasps of breath. Tuesday, when I came across the group, there were around 80 special needs persons. There were four health care providers who were quite literally overwhelmed in the section.

I decided to help out and began taking orders from the health care professionals. There was a lot of confusion about how to assist those there, especially the unresponsive people, as many were simply dumped at the Superdome and we did not know their names or care orders.

The people in the special needs section were given priority when evacuations from the Superdome first started. By Tuesday evening all but 30 immobile special needs persons remained and they were laid out on military issued cots.

Two highly dedicated and deeply concerned military nurses remained with the patients that evening. Later that night they told me something that sent shivers down my spine. They very somberly said they wanted to help me and so they informed me that after midnight the generators were expected to fail and plunge the Superdome into unannounced pitch darkness.

They added that when that happened the soldiers would be withdrawn as they would be incapable of maintaining order or defending themselves. The nurses urged me to find a hiding place inside the stadium or to head out in the waist deep water that surrounded the Superdome and seek shelter elsewhere. For the remainder of that night I kept pacing between the special needs area and the small concourse outside the Superdome. I understood that if the lights went out in the Superdome at night pandemonium would break out and a horrific stampede by the thousands of people inside would follow. I finally understood why the soldiers had earlier positioned a few concession stands as a makeshift barricade around the special needs group.

I sat on a concrete bench on the empty concourse of the Superdome which was usually packed during the day waiting for the lights to fade out and the screams to begin. For the first time I thought to myself this may be the day that I die. At 4 a.m. I dosed off without realizing.

Archived article by ami Chami
Special to The Sun