'Hell on Earth' at the Convention Center

In interviews with 30 people evacuated from the convention center — and National Guard and police officers — we hear a story of anarchy and filth, described as "hell on Earth." Evacuees described gangs of young men roaming the center, preying on people at night; and dead bodies pushed to the side or left in bathrooms for days. Some 257 National Guard troops billeted themselves in the back of the facility. Evacuees thought they came to help, but the Guard says they were only using the convention center as a staging area and were not prepared to help. As conditions got worse and worse, officials said they were unaware of what was happening inside.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

During the agonizing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, one of the most alarming situations developed inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. It wasn't supposed to be a shelter. Still, an estimated 25 to 30,000 storm evacuees crowded into the building. They came there expecting to be rescued by bus.

BLOCK: NPR's John Burnett reported from the Convention Center during the crisis. At the time he told a story of desperation and fear. Today he paints a more complete picture of what happened during those five days as people waited to be rescued. For this report he interviewed more than two dozen eyewitnesses. You'll hear about bands of young men with guns preying on the weak. You'll hear about dead bodies left lying unclaimed for days. All this while more than 200 National Guard were inside the building, billeted behind closed doors, unprepared to help. Here's John Burnett's report.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

The Morial Convention Center is a huge orange and tan structure stretching 10 1/2 city blocks along a curve of the Mississippi in downtown New Orleans.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

BURNETT: Picture a sea of people inside and outside the building, with more arriving every hour, scared, dehydrated, sick, hungry, dirty, panicked. They've come expecting evacuation from their submerged city, but what they find is a scene many will say worse than the epic hurricane itself. When producer Anne Hawke and I arrived on Thursday, September 1st, the people we encountered, virtually all of whom were black, crowded the microphone. The implored us to bring them help. Here in order are Kathania Strother(ph), a child welfare case manager; Joyce Matthew(ph), a housewife; and Edrina Mina Washington(ph), a 63-year-old retiree.

Ms. KATHANIA STROTHER (Child Welfare Case Manager): We have kids in here. We have dead bodies in the back. You know, we have people falling out left and right. No one has been here. All we want is someone to show up and let us know what's going on.

Ms. JOYCE MATTHEW (Housewife): They promised to bring the buses. We haven't seen any buses. They can't find the buses and we haven't seen police. We haven't seen no one. It's chaotic. Everyone is panicking. You know, it's just awful. We're overcrowded. It's filthy, very filthy inside.

Ms. EDRINA MINA WASHINGTON (Retiree): The way we have been treated, it's absolutely disgraceful, and I want the whole world to know it because they shouldn't treat us like this. What they brought us over here for? To kill us?

BURNETT: That was a common sentiment in the days after the storm: They brought us here to kill us. No other explanation seemed plausible. Thirty persons who endured all or part of the days and nights inside the Convention Center between August 30th and September 2nd described the ordeal in interviews as `hell on earth.' Evacuees who came from throughout the flooded city could not understand why the National Guard, the city police and hotel managers sent them there in the first place.

Ms. JANETTA SLAKE(ph) (Cosmetologist): The Convention Center, we was told to go there. They brought us there. They say that they was going to have buses waiting for us, and when we got there, there was nothing, nothing at all.

BURNETT: Janetta Slake is a cosmetologist from the Michaud area in east New Orleans who was stranded at the Convention Center with her five children, ages four to 14. She was interviewed inside the Austin Convention Center, which was a vast improvement over the Convention Center in New Orleans.

Ms. SLAKE: It was scary. It was real scary. You know, you have no lights. You can't see in the Convention Center. You're scared to in the bathroom 'cause you don't know, you know, if you're going to get raped. You don't know, you know--I mean, you can't walk on the floor because people done, you know, used the bathroom on the floor. The stench is so awful until you could smell the stench from out of the Convention Center, outside of the doors. So it wasn't a good place to be. No--there was no supervision there at the Convention Center. I mean, we was just left alone. We was like in the twilight zone.

BURNETT: Conditions we witnessed were deplorable. The carpet with its fleur-de-lis patterns was slick with sewage. Garbage collected in heaps. Babies cried. Old people moaned. At night, evacuees told us, there were stampedes sparked by shootouts between thugs and rumors of rising floodwaters. The slow were trampled in the darkness. They said that death had become commonplace. They told of a woman who died in childbirth along with her baby one night, her screams echoing throughout the cavernous lobby. The elderly succumbed to the heat, their bodies propped in wheelchairs or wrapped in sheets and pushed to the side.

The exact death toll is unknown. Police say they recovered four to six bodies. Evacuees told of scores of corpses. News reports put the body count as high as 24. The one death that stood out to most of the people I spoke with was that of a young girl whose name no one knew. Dereece Bailey(ph) is a 24-year-old medical technician who was stranded at the Convention Center with a co-worker. She had also evacuated to Austin.

Ms. DEREECE BAILEY (Medical Technician): In one of the bathrooms you had a little girl. She could have been maybe 13. She had--her neck was slit. Her clothes were like ripped so she could have been--I can say she could have been raped. But she was lifeless and a lot of people were saying that she had been in the bathroom for maybe a day or two. So I don't know.

BURNETT: Witnesses said young men armed with handguns and drunk on looted liquor began to establish territory in the giant convention hall as if it were a series of neighborhoods. Evacuees said when it became clear that these predators were acting out with impunity, some men stepped up to guard the defenseless. Derrick McKay(ph) is a correction officer at the Orleans Parish jail who was camping on the grass outside the building with his nephew.

Mr. DERRICK McKAY (Corrections Officer): The good people outnumbered the bad people, but we had a plan for them if they would have came over there.

BURNETT: What was your plan?

Mr. McKAY: We weren't going to let them hurt none of them children and them old people. We'd do whatever necessary. I'm used to controlling crowds at the jailhouse so, you know...

BURNETT: Amid this seething city of evacuees was a group of 300 Vietnamese who had fled from the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in the Michaud district when the roof blew off. Inside the Convention Center the men formed a protective ring around their women and children. Ronnie Nguyen, a 31-year-old computer technician, said a few young African-Americans tried to provoke them, but the Vietnamese refused to fight back, fearing a race riot.

Mr. RONNIE NGUYEN (Computer Technician): We don't want to fight with them. We don't want to mess with them at all.

Unidentified Woman: There's too many of them.

Mr. NGUYEN: Yeah, there's too many of them and then we in the dark. We have no light at all so we don't know what's going to happen. They might got a gun, got a knife. You know, we might get hurt from there.

BURNETT: As anarchy grew hour by hour, evacuees I spoke with said no one in authority came to maintain order even though they were close at hand. On Tuesday, 257 members of the Louisiana Army National Guard arrived in a convoy and billeted themselves in back of the Convention Center. Joanne Christopher(ph), a human resources manager at an Ontario casino, had taken refuge inside with three of her co-workers, their New Orleans vacation already a nightmare. She took pictures of the Guardsmen and felt a great sense of relief because she thought they would restore order.

Ms. JOANNE CHRISTOPHER (Human Resources Manager): We thought that they were there to kind of help out and control the situation, so it was very comforting to see them. But as the hours went on and they weren't present, it was a little disturbing that they weren't concerned with what was going on in the lobby area of the Convention Center.

BURNETT: Indeed, Christopher said, the guardsmen disappeared into the rear of the building.

Ms. CHRISTOPHER: They locked the doors and that was the last we saw of them at the back of the Convention Center.

BURNETT: Christopher said at one point she saw a man beating on the door and begging the guard for help, but none was delivered. Colonel Doug Moutaunt(ph), commander of the 225th Engineering Group of the Louisiana Army National Guard, said his men were back there, but they were only using it as a staging area. He said in an interview today they were not trained or equipped to control or provision the people swarming inside the exhibit halls. He said his Guardsmen had come to clear roads.

Colonel DOUG MOUTAUNT (Louisiana Army National Guard): These guys got dump trucks and bulldozers and front-end loaders, chain saws to do the debris removal mission. They're not military police. So to execute the mission you're talking about, they would have had to be configured, trained and equipped a lot differently. Wouldn't--they would need food and water for 20,000 people, which is, as you can imagine, not a small amount of food and water.

BURNETT: On Thursday, as pandemonium inside the Convention Center worsened, Colonel Moutaunt ordered all of his men to evacuate.

As the days passed and no buses arrived, evacuees grew upset and angry. They said they saw police cars, city vehicles, National Guard trucks and state police cruisers drive directly in front of the Convention Center all day because the street led to the only bridge out of town, but they rarely stopped. Again, jail guard Derrick McKay.

Mr. McKAY: During the daytime, you know, the police came around a lot and the National Guard came a lot. But when it started getting dark and you see the police, they're getting out--like they say, `the hell out of Dodge'--you could feel the tension something was going to happen.

BURNETT: Captain Marlon Defillo, a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department, insisted there were police at the Convention Center, but they were overwhelmed. He said courageous officers attempted to disarm the criminals inside.

Captain MARLON DEFILLO (New Orleans Police Department): The SWAT team had made several entries into the Convention Center and could not seize the gunmen. What they had to rely on was the muzzle flashes to decide where the gunfire may have been coming from and, of course, we could not return gunfire because of the potential for innocent persons being injured.

BURNETT: Beleaguered relief officials were located 14 blocks away at the Superdome, trying to get another 25 to 30,000 people out of the wretched conditions in the sports arena. They appeared unwilling or incapable of dealing with another shelter crisis simultaneously, and they promised to send buses to the Convention Center after the Superdome was empty. Some reacted with surprise at the news. Informed at midday Thursday of the alarming scene in the Convention Center, state police Captain Ralph Mitchell said...

Captain RALPH MITCHELL (Louisiana State Police): We're going to check that out right now. That's where we're on our way to. We got that report, too. It's confirmed, though.

BURNETT: The use of the Morial Convention Center as a mass storm shelter was totally unplanned. When the last exhibit, the EMS Expo, broke down on Saturday afternoon, Convention Center officials had no idea their three-million-square-foot facility would become a shelter of last resort. The National Guard colonel said the building became an impromptu collection point when other shelters in the city overflowed with evacuees.

On Wednesday morning, evacuees said a man walked through the crowd announcing, `The stores are open. It's time to go shopping.' Hundreds of people broke into shops and cafes in the Riverwalk, a tourist shopping mall on the banks of the Mississippi. The resulting scene was bizarre, said Dereece Bailey, the medical technician.

Ms. BAILEY: Because of the looting, you had people with brand-new outfits, brand-new tennis shoes, brand-new ...(unintelligible). People who probably wouldn't wear Chanel and Christian Dior, they had that on. I mean, they done went through the flood and then they done took their dirty clothes off and put new clothes onto their dirty bodies, you know.

BURNETT: Evacuees witnessed a man auctioning off LSU football jerseys on a corner. A pair of new Homer Simpson slippers padded past. Sony Game Boys appeared. A guy pushed a shopping cart through the crowd, three beers for a dollar. But many of the evacuees had this story: Thieves often shared their booty of food and drinks with anybody who needed it. Again, Derrick McKay.

Mr. McKAY: But I did witness people getting fed. They actually broke into the Marriott and opened up the kitchen and cooked food and served it to the old people. That was good. The people around there started clapping like, `We finally got some food.'

BURNETT: People kept hope alive as best they could. Evacuees said prayer and sacred songs broke out throughout the day. Groups raised homemade crosses in attempts to create a safe space amid the bedlam, which was not surprising to Derrick McKay and his friend Louis Blaze(ph), a sound technician.

Mr. McKAY: Well, that's what black people do when they feel bad, they start to praying a lot.

Mr. LOUIS BLAZE (Sound Technician): That's true. When we feel down, depressed, we turn to the Lord.

BURNETT: On the Friday after the storm, the National Guard finally dropped food and water at the Convention Center. Buses started arriving shortly thereafter and by Saturday the building was empty. Work crews are now inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, cleaning up drifts of trash and pulling up the rank carpeting. Officials say they hope to have it open for business by April of next year. John Burnett, NPR News.

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