Superdome Refugees Close to Breaking Point

Ed Gordon talks with a New Orleans police officer, assigned to duty at the Superdome the night of the storm and now trapped. The officer, who wished to remain anonymous, describes deteriorating conditions inside the city's "shelter of last resort" — and a feeling among the refugees that the lax response is racially motivated.

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ED GORDON, host:

Yesterday, a police officer on duty at the perimeter of the Superdome in New Orleans shared his observations with us. He agreed to do the interview with the condition that we didn't use his name.

Officer, thanks so much for joining us. First and foremost, I know it's stifling down there. Talk to me about what's going on outside of the Superdome.

Unidentified Police Officer: Well, people are coming to the Superdome. They know this is an access point as far as getting to Houston. So people are constantly coming to the Superdome. They're wading in water. They're coming on--in boats, kids, mothers. Today I just saw a--maybe a five-year-old carrying a three-month child to the Superdome because he couldn't find his mother. And he know that the buses were leaving to go to Houston, and he didn't want to stay out there by himself. So families are being destroyed. We're witnessing that. I haven't observed any looters. I have not observed anything else outside of the dome, but people are setting buildings on fire. I have witnessed that. Of course, you can hear the helicopters. There's hundreds of helicopters flying around, some picking up people who are still stranded. Some of them are actually flying around observing the perimeter to make sure that the looters are not around. And the rest of them are media helicopters.

But as of today, I feel like things are very much in control. The people are finally leaving and they're peaceful with that. But I hope that nothing else changes and these people aren't sent back again, because then I feel--we are over here. We are outnumbered. The Guardsmen are here. The Army are here. We're still outnumbered, because the last thing I heard, there was 30,000 people in--just in the Superdome, and there's definitely not that many National Guardsmen and police over here. So we're trying to keep them peaceful, trying to keep them--let them see that something is being done. And hopefully this time tomorrow, the Superdome will be empty.

GORDON: Give me an idea of how you and your colleagues are faring. It must be remarkably hard to not only try to keep the peace but to look around and see the devastation and try to stay strong for everyone else.

Unidentified Police Officer: We're pretty much in the same situation they are. We're stranded, as well. They're not the victims. We all are the victims. The storm came in and we were all in the Superdome, trying to make sure they were fine. It totally demolished the city, including the Superdome. And not only were they stuck in the Superdome, but so were we. But the good thing--and I understand there's been talk about people looting and shooting at the police. I explain to people, that is just mainly 1 percent of the total people that we have here. The majority of them are cooperating. And I commend some of our men, because they put their issues to the side and helped us with women and the children, trying to get them out of the city, because the crowd is so large and the heat is unbearable and the kids are just passing out, and it's--words can't describe it.

GORDON: Officer, give me a sense of what has been the hardest thing for the police to handle on a day-to-day basis.

Unidentified Police Officer: Well, the people came into the Superdome and once the storm hit and all the electricity went out, soon, you know, the air condition, the water, the toilets, and the people had to lay down and sleep in water that came in from the street. And I pretty much can understand how they feel, because then it became a situation with survival. Then not knowing when are they getting out. They've been told, `You're going to leave tomorrow.' Then tomorrow come and go and they still here. The Superdome is getting much crowder, much crowder every day. People coming in, nobody's allowed to leave.

So we've been pretty much busy just trying to get people to calm down and work with us. In the beginning, it was rough, pretty much rough, because families were coming in torn apart. We lost a lot of people because New Orleans, of course, is one of the poorest cities in the nation and one of the hardest-hit areas was one of the poorest spots in New Orleans. And family members don't know where the rest of their family members are and it was pretty much an on-patrol situation. But yet, we managed to gain control. We talked to them. It's pretty much working out well now.

GORDON: Officer, let me ask you this as it relates to the lawlessness you talked about. And I agree, often it gets blown out of proportion, because you see news accounts over and over again. Are you concerned that as days go by, if we do not see the help from FEMA, from the Red Cross, from the National Guard, as promised, that people will lose patience?

Unidentified Police Officer: Definitely. Of course, you know, New Orleans is a majority blacks city, and there's different areas and suburbs of the city that have, you know, different nationalities, of course. And the people here feel like they are being left behind because of their color. So when you listen to the radio or they hear that food is coming in, National Guard is coming in, state police is coming in, FEMA's coming in, they get a sense of hopeness, but then when they see nothing, it becomes a sense of helplessness. And they tend to, of course, get hostile. And then, being not a police officer but a human, I can pretty much understand why they feel the way they do, because they're in dire need to get out of this situation, get out of this city. Because when they come outside, all they see is water. And more people coming, more people coming, and they know that sooner or later they're going to get to the point where they won't be able to leave. So we're hearing stories that FEMA's here and National Guard is here, food is here, but, of course we're not seeing anything.

GORDON: You talk about the city being a majority black. And, of course, as we cover this, we are trying to tap into the black community as much as we can to get the word out, especially for people who, in fact, have relatives and may not have been able to talk with them. As you hear the day-to-day conversations, do you get the feeling of growing resentment from the black community there that, they, if this had been in Utah or some other city that was a majority white, you would not see the kinds of delays that we're seeing now?

Unidentified Police Officer: Right. They pretty much feel like they're being met with aggression instead of being met with help. And, like you said earlier, there's nothing that we can present to them--and I don't want to use the word `we.' There's nothing that's being presented to them to show them that, `Hey, we're trying to help you all.' Of course, the buses are here, but it took so long just to get the buses here to get the people out that they feel like everybody else in the city was evacuated. They were the last resort. So they're pretty much upset. And, I mean, like I said, I can feel their anger because my family's gone. I'm the only one here. I have a brother who I can't get in contact with. In my heart, I know he's fine, but I, too, have to take care of my family. I have to take care of myself. But before I can do that, I'm obligated to make sure these people are taken care of. But when I'm hearing conflicting statements because--of course, like that old saying, `There's too many chiefs, not enough Indians.' There's no cooperation between agencies here. One agency is doing this, one agency is doing that, and no one is coming together, trying to come up with a solution of, how can we get these people out of here, get them safe, get them to some water, get them to some food and do it real soon.

GORDON: You beat me to my next question. And I want you to continue that point. But as a person who's out there in the streets, on the beat, dealing with people day to day, are you feeling that--not only interdepartmentally, but do you feel, just from the New Orleans Police Department, that you're getting enough guidance and enough leadership in how to deal with folks?

Unidentified Police Officer: Well, right now we're under martial law, and I guess we no longer have leadership. The National Guard has come in, and so have other agencies, and taken over. Our department, believe it or not, is separated from--last I heard, we had officers, as of today, still stuck at home on their roofs, because they were told to go home and report back to work at 7:00 that morning when the storm hit the city at 5:00 that morning.

GORDON: What about the morale of the police department, in general, the buddies of yours that you're working with on a day-to-day basis?

Unidentified Police Officer: We're pretty much taking care of each other. We hear the rumors about the looting and the shooting. We have our guards up, but we also are surviving ourselves. We're here in our police vehicles and we don't have access to gas, so we're pretty much living out of our cars. And sooner of later, we're going to be living out on the street. I guess you could say that. But we realize we are all alone. We're here by ourself. So we got to stick together.

GORDON: Where have you been patrolling? Have you been patrolling at the Superdome?

Unidentified Police Officer: Right. We're stuck at the Superdome. We cannot get out of New Orleans.

GORDON: Now we have been hearing about violence in the Superdome. How much of that report is real and how--is it sporadic violence? Is it ongoing violence? Is it just the nature of people being together and it's just hot? Talk to me. Describe the violence there for me.

Unidentified Police Officer: Well, there's been reports of incidents in the Superdome as far as the shootings. We had an isolated incident yesterday where a Guardsman was shot. But from my understanding, the situation was--it was isolated. I don't think it was anything that a person just pulled out a gun and started shooting. We had rumors of rapes. Of course, there are people dying. I'm not directly in the Superdome, so I couldn't confirm the rumors, but there are sporadic acts of violence.

GORDON: Where are you, outside the--are you outside the Superdome?

Unidentified Police Officer: Well, right now, I'm outside the Superdome. We do go into the dome, but the incidents are taking place, like I said, sporadically. So, unfortunately, they're taking place when I'm not there--when I'm not in there, actually.

GORDON: Yeah.

Unidentified Police Officer: But we manage to get it under control. I can actually say again, the community has helped us. They understand that if that 1 percent is allowed to wreak havoc on everybody else, it will make it hard on themselves. So they are standing up and turning people out, say--telling us, you know, things we need to know, and they're helping us out a lot. Because, like I say, these people are trying to get out of here.

GORDON: Well, Officer, just know that--and I know sometimes it isn't always comforting--but you got a lot of folks praying for you. And for those of us outside who can only send money and send help by means of getting these stories out...

Unidentified Police Officer: Ah, Ed, we thank you all a lot. Trust me. Some things you're not going to notice. We understand we're going to be stuck here to do a recovery mission, which is going to be the hardest part. Because I myself have a family, and to go in a home and find babies and other people drowned, that's going to be the hardest part of the job. But hopefully--I wish I'll go into a house and couldn't find anyone. And what--the chance of that happening is very slim, because to this day, we don't know what the death toll is, but we know it is extremely high.

GORDON: Well, again, we'll say a prayer for you. And you hang in there, and I hope you're reunited with your family real soon.

Unidentified Police Officer: OK. I thank you much, man. Thank you much.

GORDON: Again, that was a story from one New Orleans police officer.

This is NPR News.

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