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Death remains in city and on minds

Superdome evacuated, some refugees remain at New Orleans Convention Center, Louis Armstrong International Airport
Sunday, September 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:17 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Thousands more bedraggled refugees were bused and airlifted to salvation Saturday, leaving the heart of New Orleans to the dead and dying, the elderly and frail stranded too many days without food, water or medical care.

No one knows how many were killed by Hurricane Katrina’s floods or how many more succumbed waiting to be rescued. But the bodies are everywhere: hidden in attics, floating among the ruined city, crumpled on wheelchairs, abandoned on highways.

And the dying goes on — at the convention center and an airport triage center, where bodies were kept in a refrigerated truck.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Saturday that she expected the death toll to reach the thousands. Craig Vanderwagen, rear admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service, said one morgue alone, at a St. Gabriel prison, expected 1,000 to 2,000 bodies.

Touring the airport triage center, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a physician, said “a lot more than eight to 10 people are dying a day.”

Most were those too sick or weak to survive. But not all.

Charles Womack, a 30-year-old roofer, said he saw one man beaten to death and another commit suicide at the Superdome. Womack was beaten with a pipe and being treated at the airport triage center.

“One guy jumped off a balcony. I saw him do it. He was talking to a lady about it. He said it reminded him of the war and he couldn’t leave,” he said.

Three infants died at the New Orleans Convention Center from heat exhaustion, said Mark Kyle, a medical relief provider.

But some progress was evident. The last 300 refugees at the Superdome climbed aboard buses Saturday, eliciting cheers from members of the Texas National Guard who had been standing watch over the facility for nearly a week as some 20,000 hurricane survivors waited for rescue.

The convention center was “almost empty” after 4,200 people were removed, according to Marty Bahamonde, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At the convention center, where earlier estimates of the crowd climbed as high as 25,000, thousands of refugees dragged their meager belongings to buses, the mood more numb than jubilant. Yolando Sanders, who had been stuck at the convention center for five days, was among those who filed past corpses to reach the buses.

“Anyplace is better than here,” she said. “People are dying over there.”

Nearby, a woman lay dead in a wheelchair on the front steps. A man was covered in a black drape with a dry line of blood running to the gutter, where it had pooled. Another had lain on a chaise lounge for four days, his stocking feet peeking out from under a quilt.

By mid-afternoon, only pockets of stragglers remained in the streets around the convention center, and New Orleans paramedics began carting away the dead.

A once-vibrant city of 480,000 people, overtaken just days ago by floods, looting, rape and arson, was now an empty, sodden tomb.

The exact number of dead won’t be known for some time. Survivors were still being plucked from roofs and highways across the city. President Bush ordered more than 7,000 active duty forces to the Gulf Coast on Saturday.

“There are people in apartments and hotels that you didn’t know were there,” Army Brig. Gen. Mark Graham said.

The overwhelming majority of those stranded in the post-Katrina chaos were those without the resources to escape — and, overwhelmingly, they were black.

“The first few days were a natural disaster. The last four days were a man-made disaster,” said Phillip Holt, 51, who was rescued from his home Saturday with his partner and three of their aging Chihuahuas. They left a fourth behind they couldn’t grab in time.

Tens of thousands of people had been evacuated from the city, seeking safety in Texas, Tennessee, Indiana and Arkansas.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry warned Saturday that his enormous state was running out of room, with more than 220,000 hurricane refugees camped out there and more coming.

Emergency workers at the Astrodome were told to expect 10,000 new arrivals daily for the next three days.

Thousands of people remained at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where officials turned a Delta Blue terminal into a triage unit. Officials said 3,000 to 5,000 people had been treated at the triage unit, but fewer than 200 remain. Others throughout the airport awaited transport out of the city.

“In the beginning it was like trying to lasso an octopus. When we got here, it was overwhelming,” said Jake Jacoby, a physician helping run the center.

Airport director Roy Williams said about 30 people had died, some of them elderly and ill. The bodies were being kept in refrigerated trucks as a temporary morgue.

At the convention center, people stumbled toward the helicopters, dehydrated and nearly passing out from exhaustion. Many had to be carried by National Guard troops and police on stretchers. Some were being pushed up the street on office chairs and on dollies.

Around the corner, a motley fleet of luxury tour buses and yellow school buses lined up two deep to pick up some of the healthier refugees. National Guardsmen confiscated a gun, knives and letter openers from people before they got on the buses.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Derek Dabon, 29, said as he waited to pass through a guard checkpoint. “There’s no way I’m coming back. To what? That don’t make sense. I’m going to start a new life.”

Dan Craig, director of recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it could take up to six months to get the water out of New Orleans, and the city would then need to dry out, which could take up to three more months.

As the warehouse district burned, Ron Seitzer, 61, washed his laundry in the even dirtier waters of the Mississippi River, and said he didn’t know how much longer he could stay without water or power, surrounded by looters.


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