September 14, 2005

Tulanian Describes Superdome Chaos After Hurricane Katrina

Print More

I woke up Wednesday morning relieved that the generators had not given out during the previous night and headed back to a small section of the Superdome set aside of for mostly elderly people with special needs. The atmosphere in the dome had gotten incredibly tense and the soldiers were walking around with shotguns, which I assume is an ideal weapon for combat in close quarters.

Twice the day before people had walked up to the special needs area bleeding from the either accident or fight injuries thinking we were the first aid station which was actually one floor below us. When I got to the special needs group I realized that the conditions there were horrendous and deteriorating rapidly. A female military officer sat crying holding the hand of a elderly woman whom she thought was about to die. Many of the special needs people had been in their feces and urine soiled gowns for three days and all of them had been sweating profusely in the sweltering unventilated stadium.

Without medical training there was little I could do but fan them, give them water through syringes, and talk with them. One of the ladies there was a 91-year-old great-great-grand mother who had emigrated from Cuba when she was 25 years old. I would practice my amateur Spanish with her and she would correct me. One of the men there was a retired Tulane University police officer who was now paralyzed from the neck down. He told me stories of students who bought him lunch daily begging him not to inform their parents after he busted them on campus and other crazy experiences he had as a police officer.

Unfortunately most of the people in special needs required an assortment of immediate medical attention, medication, oxygen, insulin, and I.V.’s more than someone to chat with. Unable to eat solid foods, many of the immobile patients had not eaten in over 72 hours and watching many of them cry constantly was harrowing. I honestly thought half of them would die before being evacuated from the Superdome. By 11 a.m., we had moved all the remaining immobile special needs people to a secured docking area on the ground level of the stadium that was off limits to the caged masses inside the dome. There I began a five-hour solo shift where I watched over the last eight special needs people to leave the Superdome hoping desperately they would not die on me as many of them lay sobbing and telling me they could not hold on much longer.

One lady I was looking after was extremely obese and had spent four days in the dome on a folded table top, which had been placed on a large cart so we could move her. She was extremely soiled and her raw bed sores were so irritated by the urine and feces that covered her lower torso that she screamed constantly. Fortunately we were able to change and wash her in the afternoon, but it did little to alleviate her pain from her infected sores.

At 5 p.m. the last special needs person was loaded onto an open-top high-bed military truck and I was given permission to join them. I stepped on that truck with only the clothes on my back and nothing inside my pockets. When I asked why the truck was about to leave when it could accommodate twice as many people as were on it a soldier replied that they had not yet devised a way to evacuate people from the crowd in an orderly fashion without starting a riot.

Remembering all the children and elderly people who thronged the crowded hallways of the floors above me I could not shake the guilty feeling in me.

We drove off from the Superdome in water that completely covered the wheels of the truck and made our way out of the utterly shattered downtown and submerged city. We, like every military vehicle that left the Superdome, had a machine gun-clad guard and were told to sit low while passing the hundreds of refugees on the street so they would not know we were being evacuated and charge the truck. We reached the outskirt of the city and stopped at a stretch of highway that had been converted to a makeshift transfer center. Patients were being evacuated one-by-one in ambulances that stretched as far as I could see and military and Coast Guard helicopters were landing and taking off next to us every few minutes.

The scene was very chaotic and the small secured enclosured area I was in was surrounded by hundreds of stranded people who had walked there from the surrounding areas desperately hoping to get on one of the buses leaving the city. Three police officers, one carrying a Soviet-era Kalashnikov machine gun, were only admitting people with life threatening medical needs inside the makeshift perimeter. At one point, two of the officers forcibly shoved a man who was begging to be let inside. Once again, I felt guilty for being on the side he and the hundreds around him wanted to be on.

After all the special needs patients I had been with were assigned ambulances I got on an evacuation charter bus at midnight which I was told was heading for the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. In mid-route we were diverted to Lafayette, Louisiana and dropped off at the Cajun Dome which had also been converted to a makeshift shelter. The Cajun Dome felt like an oasis after being in the Superdome, it was clean and orderly. I went to sleep at 4 a.m. on the floor and used an MRE packet as a pillow. The following morning, I left the Cajun Dome and was able to get a ride with a family that was driving to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

There I was met by a family friend who I spent a few days with and who was able to help me out.

Tulane University has canceled classes for the fall semester as have many other universities in New Orleans. Fortunately, many universities across the U.S., including Cornell University, have graciously agreed to accept displaced students. To the administrators, faculty, staff, and students of Cornell I express my heartfelt thanks for their understanding and assistance. I am very fortunate because things have worked out for me. However, I still don’t know what happened to those elderly people I was with, which hospitals they were sent to, or whether they made it. The people of the Gulf Coast need your help and mine, the destruction I witnessed was unimaginable in scale and severity. The region will likely take years to recuperate. I urge you to please donate money to or volunteer with the relief effort.

Archived article by Rami Chami
Special to The Sun