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'It reminds me of Baghdad in the worst of times'
Julian Borger in New Orleans
Saturday September 3, 2005
The Guardian (UK)
The sprawling convention centre in New Orleans was no doubt once a source of civic pride, but yesterday the concrete and glass edifice was a symbol of national shame, giving out a stench that could be smelt two blocks away.
A dense mass of people - perhaps 20,000, almost all of them black - packed the cavernous building and filled the surrounding pavement, sitting amid debris left by Hurricane Katrina and the rubbish accumulated in four days of waiting for help.
A knot of police officers, mostly white, watched the throng warily from a small side road, armed with rifles and pump-action shotguns. More police watched from the Greater New Orleans Bridge high above.
They were the only sign that the official world was aware of the plight of the crowd below - and that was as close as they got. The previous day, some military rations and water had been dropped by relief workers from the bridge on to the car park. It was as if being poor and black was a contagious disease.
If so, it was becoming a self-fulfilling dread. Inside the building, the toilets had become blocked after the first day, and by yesterday the air wafting from them was so noxious it felt like a blow to the face.
A policewoman near the centre brandishing a shotgun said she had no news of the promised help from the army and the National Guard. "They've been saying they're going to send in troops since day one. We haven't seen anything yet."
Walking from her informal checkpoint to the crowd across the road was like crossing a boundary between the first and third world. On the other side, many people were clearly too ill to walk and several seemed close to starving.
Inside the centre, no one could understand why they were being treated in this way. "If you can drive in like that, how come they can't come and get us?" Henry Carr, a 38-year-old furniture salesman, said.
Everyone was frantic to know whether the buses would turn up. For days, they had been told to stay in the centre so they could be picked up, but the promised transport had failed to materialise. Buses had arrived for the people trapped at the Louisiana Superdome stadium, a mile to the north, but it seemed the convention centre, a lesser landmark, had been forgotten. The latest rumour was that the buses would come later that afternoon, but that would already be too late for up to a dozen people who had died waiting.
Two of the bodies had been dumped by an employees' entrance. They were both old and frail women. One had died in her wheelchair; a blanket had been thrown over her face. The other woman had been wrapped in a sheet.
A man walked past the bodies dragging a pallet loaded with big bottles of ginger ale, some plates and a frying pan. To the rest of America watching the tragedy unfold on their televisions, he was one of the looters, denounced by President Bush.
But to the people inside the convention centre, he was one of a band of heroes keeping them alive. "The people who were going into the stores would give us water and food, said Edna Harris, Henry Carr's aunt. "There would be ladies with babies and they had no milk, and these guys would break in and bring them milk."
Kyle Turner, a 28-year-old dishwasher, was looking for some clean water. "My son is six months old and we got no milk. I just got two cans of powdered milk, and I need some water for it," he said.
In addition to the constant squalor, the thousands left in the centre had to contend with the fear of gangs of young men. Everybody talked about it. One woman said she held her children's hands tight all night because there were stories circulating of thugs who took young girls and boys to the upper stories of the centre and raped them. It was impossible to confirm the rumours but there was no mistaking the fear they inspired.
By late morning, a possible sign of hope had arrived. A lone soldier stood by the side of a red civilian pick-up holding a rifle and talking to some of the stranded civilians. He would not give his name, but the patch on his shoulder indicated he was from the 101st Airborne, an elite division which has spent much of the past two years in Iraq. "Kind of reminds me of Baghdad in the worst of times," he said shaking his head. Then he got into his pick-up and drove off.
William Schaefer, one of the few white men in the crowd, looked on in disgust. "We're dying one, two a day here. Why don't they come for us?"
· Musician Fats Domino, 77, thought to have been missing after refusing to evacuate, was yesterday reported to be safe after being picked up by a boat with his wife and at least one of his daughters near his home in New Orleans.