Convention Center Not Forgotten in Cleanup

Six months ago, many New Orleans residents took refuge at the Morial Convention Center. They waited for four days for buses to evacuate them from the flooded, lawless city. Reporter John Burnett was there in the first days after Katrina and he talks with Robert Siegel about the building's progress.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. And this week Michele Norris and I are in New Orleans. We are here at a time of taking stock. It is six months since the levees broke and large parts of this city flooded. Homes were washed away, people fled to Baton Rouge, to Texas and Arkansas. Families struggled to resume normal life, jobs, school, community, after they were dispersed.

Six months ago some of the unluckiest folks made their way here through high water and lawless streets to the Earnest N. Morial Convention Center. Many waited five long days for buses to come. Somehow they had been forgotten by the authorities. NPR's John Burnett was here then and he's here with me now. John a pretty different place today than it was six months ago.

JOHN BURNETT, reporting:

It's hard to describe how radically different it is, Robert. When producer Ann Hawke and I were here on the fourth day after the storm, that Thursday, it turns out 15 to 20 thousand people in this enormous structure and spilling out onto the sidewalk.

SIEGEL: Even four or five days, thousands of people in one place create a society of sorts.

BURNETT: That's right. And in some ways they created the roles necessary for their own survival. They had foragers, they had people who went out and brought back food. They formed self-protection units. There was a group of Vietnamese who formed a circle around the women and children to protect them from these marauding bands of young men who were drunk on looted liquor.

There were other men who had made a sort of security pack to protect the defenseless in case some of these predators at night would set upon them. There were people who stood out here on this sidewalk and started singing spirituals to keep their spirits up. They erected handmade crosses and, as one of the men who witnessed this told me, he said, this is our area, we're about church, we ain't about no trouble.

SIEGEL: There were stories of things that happened here in the Convention Center which have not borne out. Some horrible stories of crime and murder inside the building.

BURNETT: One of the most lurid rumors was about a young girl who allegedly had her throat slit and had been raped and her body was left in a second story bathroom. We now know there are four confirmed deaths in the Convention Center during that five day ordeal. None of which was a young woman who had her throat slit. I've asked the authorities about this before. They said these were emotional hallucinations at the time.

There was, there were so many rumors. There was so much wild information. As you recall, at one point they said there was 30 bodies in a walk-in freezer in here, which never turned out to be true. But anything seemed possible at the time. When civil order completely breaks down and there's no one coming to help, and there's no news, rumors become the fact of the day.

SIEGEL: Six months later the Convention Center is not completely operational, but we are standing in a large clean hall. People are using this facility. It looks better than a lot of East European airport terminals I've seen. It's back in business.

BURNETT: And they're ahead of schedule, actually. They have done a remarkably fast clean up job here. There were three Mardi Gras balls that were held in the Convention Center this Carnival season. The conventions in the future, of all things, the Air and Waste Management Association is going to be meeting here. The City Clerks office has opened up a satellite office here, and this is where the mayoral candidates have to qualify for office. So, it's very much back in business.

SIEGEL: Thank you John.

BURNETT: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's John Burnett returning to this building that he covered six months ago. The Convention Center in New Orleans.

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