British students told yesterday how they stepped out of the horror of Hurricane Katrina into the hell of their Superdome “shelter”.
A place of refuge became a terrifying trap, where knives and guns, crack cocaine use, threats of violence and racial abuse were rife.
Jamie Trout, 22, who kept a record of his four days there, said: “It was like something out of Lord of the Flies—one minute everything is calm and civil, the next it descends into chaos.”
In one diary entry, he said: “A man has been arrested for raping a seven-year-old in the toilet, this place is hell, I feel sick. The smell is horrendous, there are toilets overflowing and people everywhere.”
As the evacuation of the 70,000—capacity arena continued yesterday, the swamped city of New Orleans descended into near barbarism.
The looting and carjacking of recent days showed no sign of slowing. Gunfire was aimed at police and helicopters attempting to ferry the sick from hospitals, accompanied by shouts of: “You better come get my family.”
Ten thousand National Guardsmen were sent in from across the US to the flood-ravaged Gulf coast.
At least seven bodies lay unclaimed in the streets around the New Orleans Convention Centre—one a woman in a wheelchair covered by a blanket.
Daniel Edwards, 47, pointed at her and said: “I don’t treat my dog like that . . . I buried my dog.”
Amid criticism of government inaction, he added: “You can do everything for other countries but you can’t do nothing for your own people.
“You can go overseas with the military but you can’t get them down here.”
Thousands of storm refugees massed outside the convention building, waiting for buses that never came. They had no food, water or medicines.
The Rev Issac Clark, 68, said: “We are out here like pure animals. We don’t have help.”
In what may be America’s worst natural disaster for a century, 80 per cent of a city of 500,000 people was under water up to 20ft deep. Thousands could be dead.
At the Superdome, at least 25,000 people were moved out yesterday as New Orleans Mayor Nagin vowed: “Come hell or high water we will evacuate people today, I’ll march them out if I have to.” Soldiers with M16 assault rifles and grenade launchers tried to control crowds desperate to get out.
At least one person died in the arms of a soldier. A National Guardsman was wounded in the leg by his own gun in a struggle with two men and a military helicopter was shot at while ferrying away a casualty.
Brit diary-writer Jamie had been coaching football to disabled children as part of the Camp America scheme.
Jamie, who was with two friends, said: “We were in Miami for three or four days when Katrina first hit.
“We rode that storm out and then decided to go to New Orleans. We didn’t realise the storm was heading that way.”
He said of his eventual Superdome refuge: “There was a lot of heat from the people in there, people shouting racial abuse about us being white.
“The army warned us to keep our bags close to us and to grip them tight.”
Jamie, an economics student from Sunderland, said he saw crack cocaine being used in the filthy toilets, youngsters breaking into soft drink machines and men brawling. Urine and excrement spilled into corridors where they were sleeping.
At one point, up to 30 British students gathered in the dome were so terrified of attack when the power went down that they set up a makeshift security cordon.
Zoe Smith, 21, from Hull, said: “All us girls sat in the middle while the boys sat on the outside, with chairs as protection.
“We were absolutely terrified, the situation had descended into chaos, people were very hostile and the living conditions were horrendous.
“We had to wash with tiny bottles of water, the sink was blocked and full of gunk. Even when we offered to help with the cleaning, the locals gave us abuse.”
Some students said they saw an 18-inch knife confiscated from one man and many others had guns and other weapons.
Marisa Haigh, 23, from Guildford, who is studying at Birmingham University, and Claire Watkins, 23, a student from Bradford, had arrived in New Orleans last Saturday after a trip across the US.
Claire said: “We went out drinking on Saturday night and had an awesome time.
“On Sunday we had hangovers and hadn’t heard or read anything about the hurricane coming in. We only realised there was something wrong when we went out in the street and no one was around, everywhere was shut or boarded up.”
They were in the Superdome when Katrina hit. Marisa said: “There was a series of almighty bangs when the roof went and a panel flew off.
“There was a woman screaming, ‘We’re gonna die, we’re all gonna die’.”
Eventually many of the students were moved to the nearby basketball arena, thanks to Sgt Garland Ogden, a full-timer with the National Guard.
Jane Wheeldon, 20, said: “He went against a lot of rules to get us moved.”
Yesterday Texas was ready to house 50,000 flood refugees—25,000 of them in the Houston Astrodome, 350 miles away. The rest will go to San Antonio.
Rescue in some areas was suspended as looters ran amok.
Coast Guard Lt Cmdr Cheri Ben-Iesan said at emergency HQ: “Hospitals are trying to evacuate. At every one of them, there are reports that as the helicopters come in people are shooting at them, telling them, ‘You better come get my family’. City leader Mitch Landrieu toured stricken areas and was besieged by rescued people begging him to pass information to their families.
His pocket was full of scraps of paper on which he had scribbled down their phone numbers.
He contacted a woman whose father had been saved and told her: “Your daddy’s alive, and he said to tell you he loves you.”
Landrieu added: “She just started crying. She said, ‘I thought he was dead’.”
In Britain, worried relatives of the Superdome students were told by the Mirror their loved ones were safe.
From details given to our reporters at the scene, we passed on messages to families nationwide.
Zoe Smith’s mother Sharon said in Hull: “That’s brilliant. It’s been horrendous not knowing what on earth has happened to her. I have barely slept.”
Fine art publisher Janet Murray, 55, from Frome, Somerset, whose daughter Hannah was stranded, said: “I had not heard anything, thanks so much for letting me know.”
Australian Associated Press, Sept. 2
Australians trapped in flood-ravaged New Orleans are in fear of their lives as the city descends into lawlessness.
Tourists stranded in the US Gulf Coast city and sheltering in its huge Superdome sports stadium in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have told of shootings, rapes and looting, and are growing increasingly concerned for their safety.
More than 50 Australians are believed to be trapped in New Orleans and surrounding areas.
Brisbane man Peter McNeil said his 22-year-old son John was stranded in New Orleans but had now moved with other foreigners out of the Superdome for their own protection.
Violence and racist behaviour had forced the group, including about 10 Australians, to take refuge in a hotel lobby after seeing people raped and murdered, he said.
“It’s a real racist issue, apparently, between the locals, and they were segregated, and John said they would stab you as soon as look at you,” Mr McNeil told ABC radio.
“He’s never been so scared in his life. He just said they had to get out of the dark otherwise, another night, he said, they would have gone.
“He said the tension was just building so much it was impossible to stay in there.”
Tim and Joanne Miller, from Rockhampton in Queensland, have also made contact with their family in Australia. They said they were too scared to move.
“The violence there is escalating. There are shootings—they’ve now got three dead bodies at the bottom of the stairwell where they are,” their daughter Kelly-Rae Smith told ABC radio.
“There’s so much violence going on there. It shows you how much violence when the SWAT (police) team locked themselves in their building.”
Sharon Whyte of Victoria, whose mother Pamela and cousin Karen are in New Orleans, said the pair was at the convention centre near the Superdome, but did not know what was happening.
“(They’re) not too good at the moment, they’re not handling the situation very well,” Ms Whyte told the Nine Network.
“They haven’t had water since Tuesday. My mother’s on medication, I don’t know if she’s taken that.
“All the family here don’t know anything and they’re in a bad way.
“My cousin got through early this morning, it was only a quick call because the phone went dead.
“She said they’re just terrified. They’ve got no idea what’s going on whether there’s buses there.
“That don’t know how long they’ll be there, nothing at all.”
Australian officials, who have been blocked by US authorities from entering hurricane-damaged areas, estimate there are “more than 50” Australians in New Orleans and the surrounding hurricane-damaged areas.
No Australians are missing and there are no reports of Australian deaths or injuries. Those stranded will be taken by bus to Houston, Texas.
“Our advice for people in the region is to follow the lead and guidance of the local authorities and we are doing everything we can to monitor the events,” Matt Francis, a spokesman for the Australian embassy in Washington, told AAP.
However, Australia’s diplomatic effort has come under fire from relatives.
The mother and boyfriend of Australian tourist Vanessa Cullington are flying to the US this morning to try to find her after losing contact with her three days ago.
The 22-year-old, of Castlereagh in Sydney, last contacted her family on Tuesday from New Orleans after arriving in the city by train in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Vanessa’s mother, Sharon Cullington, said she was desperate for information about her daughter but had received a less than sympathetic response from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
“They actually did get back to me at midnight on Wednesday night with an attitude of ‘well, what was she doing there’,” she said.
“There was even a bit of a scoff in (the official’s) voice.”
Mr and Mrs Miller’s daughter Ms Smith criticised DFAT, saying they had been unhelpful in their responses.
DFAT defended its efforts, saying it was difficult to get information on Australians because the US government had banned foreign consular officials from entering the disaster zone.
“We are aware of a number of Australians awaiting evacuation and others who may be in the affected area,” a DFAT spokesman said.
“We understand the frustration but we’re doing what we can in the circumstances.”