Evacuating New Orleans — But to Where?

In New Orleans, a National Guard convoy of vehicles carries relief supplies through the streets of the downtown area. An evacuation of tens of thousands of people is also under way. Their destination is sometimes unclear.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We'll go to Mississippi later in the show, but first to New Orleans where a convoy of amphibious vehicles is carrying relief supplies through the flooded streets of the downtown area, and evacuation of tens of thousands of people is under way. In the western part of the city the federal government and Army and local police forces have two staging areas to gather evacuees and take them to shelters mostly out of state. NPR's Mike Pesca visited one of these staging areas on the I-10 freeway under North Causeway Boulevard.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Thousands of people, black and white, filthy and rank with a collective energy level that ranged from zombielike to merely exhausted: Members of the crowd said they felt like animals, but the hundreds of actually animals that were there could barely muster a collective growl. The Red Cross was cooking hot dogs and officials distributed meals ready to eat, which soldiers compare unfavorably to high school cafeteria food, but the masses of people were happy to have.

Have you guys eaten in a while?

Unidentified Man #1: I mean...

Unidentified Man #2: I mean, yeah, we've been eating, man, but...

Unidentified Man #1: ...bothering you. This is good. This is about the best thing right now.

Unidentified Man #2: No.

PESCA: Yeah. I mean, what do you mean? Like snacks and stuff, whatever.

Unidentified Man #2: Potato chips basically. Potato...

Unidentified Man #1: Potato chips. This...

Unidentified Man #2: ...chips and water.

PESCA: For how long?

Unidentified Man #2: About four days, man.

PESCA: Nathaniel Joseph(ph) and Ryan Washington's(ph) all-Pringles diet was the least of the ordeals that this crowd went through. Many of these people were the ones you've seen rescued from the roofs by helicopters. More still hitched boat rides. Will Walker fled his house on Tuesday.

Mr. WILL WALKER: Completely destroyed. Completely. Everything inside--it's gone.

PESCA: Walker's story is extraordinary and typical: rooftop rescue, floating in contaminated water, dropped off on the closest patch of dry land.

Mr. WALKER: Then we all got together. We broke into a church upstairs. It was on some pillars, and we spent the night there. That was horrible.

PESCA: His rescue wasn't an event, but a multistep process, each time being dropped off by an official or citizen who had no advice other than, `This is as far as I can take you.'

Mr. WALKER: So now we at the Faber Center, the windows are broken. It's called survival.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. WALKER: I'm not a--I'm an OK guy moneywise, so I'm not going to steal. So I didn't look at myself as stealing. We just had to survive so we needed water, personal items, toiletries and so forth.

PESCA: Even the strongest were humbled by the hurricane. Eric Kroll was flooded out of his New Orleans home.

Mr. ERIC KROLL: I mean, it was like toilet water pretty much, and, you know, I'm nauseated now, trying to get my system back drinking water. But I just can't get it back to normal. I guess it's just the whole big scenario. And you know, it's stress.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. KROLL: And I been in the Marines and I've had stress, but nothing's come close.

PESCA: Kroll, like everybody else, was getting on the buses that ever so periodically showed up. They were going to--well, no one knew. The bus driver might say, `Dallas,' he might say, `Houston,' it didn't matter. People just wanted to get out and to get messages out to loved ones who they hadn't seen for days.

Unidentified Woman #2: All right. Remo(ph), I think you're in Mississippi. Beeter(ph), I think you're in Texas. Kil(ph), wherever you at, call Mama.

PESCA: The helicopters that were landing on a muddy field on the other side of I-10 were the most visible means of rescue, but not the most common. Black Hawks can only hold 11 passengers; Army transport trucks can hold 30. Specialist Ryan Hessler(ph) is with the 1087th Division of the Army National Guard.

Specialist RYAN HESSLER (Army National Guard): This is a FMDV(ph). It's a five-ton vehicle. We use it to transport troops, refugees, supplies--just anything. You can go through high water with it. We've been to the Superdome. We went through almost six feet of water in it. It's what the military uses now.

PESCA: These vehicles, nicknamed five-tons, are new. The 1087th left their old five-tons back in Iraq where they had been fitted with armor. The trucks traveled in a convoy from the staging area to Algiers, a city almost directly across from the French Quarter on the other side of the Mississippi River. The 20-mile-long drive, which is double the distance of the most direct route, passed by broken down homes, downed power lines, a smouldering mall which had been on fire for hours, nearly empty streets, and once in Algiers, a half-hour later, this strange sight.

These are where the crews--we're passing by where the crews build their floats--Tuck's Den, Eden's Den--for Mardi Gras. This is Mardi Gras World. The street is littered giant horse heads. Looks like a game of chess has gone awry and a big jester--oh, 20 feet--is on its back thrown from the roof of Mardi Gras World.

The sign at the Algiers ferry terminal proclaimed, `Algiers, New Orleans' best-kept secret,' and indeed the bedraggled crowd looked like humanity's castoffs. Bob Schmidt of Arabi, Louisiana, made his way here from a ferry in Chalmette, and before that he couldn't really remember. He had only slept seven out of the last hundred hours.

Mr. BOB SCHMIDT: Everything's been destroyed. You're wearing everything you own. I'm wearing everything I own: a T-shirt, underwear, jeans and sandals. That's it.

PESCA: Have you had anything to eat or drink?

Mr. SCHMIDT: Not for awhile. You know, it's just so stressful you can't get hungry.

PESCA: The evacuees, with all the vim they could manage, lightly applauded the soldiers. But the dynamic was clearly one of policemen and the policed. Specialist Hessler, forced to focus on a practical aspect of coming into contact with hundreds of refugees, continuously applied an anti-bacterial mousse to his hands.

Spec. HESSLER: Well, yeah, because all the sewages is backed up, and they've waded around in water and this is nasty. It's just nasty. There's feces everywhere. There's urine. Everything.

PESCA: Unfortunately, the crowd at the terminal was about 180 strong, and the five-tons can only hold about 150. Two elderly people, incongruously perched on office furniture, were left behind. They were given priority, but said they wanted to wait for buses they heard were coming rather than climb the five feet or so into the back of the five-tons. For the other evacuees on the trucks, it was a trip back to the staging area and then to somewhere else--where, they didn't know. It was just away from here. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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