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Worsening Conditions Forcing Stadium Evacuation, Official Says

Hurricane Katrina damaged the roof of the Louisiana Superdome, which served as an emergency shelter for about 20,000 people in New Orleans. The number of people inside the emergency shelter had doubled since Monday, some having been delivered by rescuers.
Hurricane Katrina damaged the roof of the Louisiana Superdome, which served as an emergency shelter for about 20,000 people in New Orleans. The number of people inside the emergency shelter had doubled since Monday, some having been delivered by rescuers. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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"Fresh air -- it's so wonderful. It's the first time I've wanted to breathe all day," said Robin Smith, 33. "When you think what we could've gone through, it's not too bad in there. But it's certainly not as wonderful as this."

A groan rose from a group listening to a newscast when the devastation was detailed and officials in suburban Jefferson Parish said residents would not be allowed to return until Monday. One woman cried.

"We're doing everything we can to keep these people comfortable," Gen. Ralph Lupin, commander of the National Guard troops at the Superdome, said Tuesday morning. "We're doing our best. It's not getting any better, but we're trying not to let it get any worse."

"I know people want to leave, but they can't leave," he said. "There's three feet of water around the Superdome," turning the signature stadium into the city's Alamo.

Surrounding it was the enemy -- millions of gallons of water from Lake Pontchartrain that flooded most of the city.

Some hospitals that had to close because their emergency generators were in danger of being flooded by rising water sent some of their patients to the Superdome, where four previously hospitalized patients had died, authorities said. Another man died after a plunge from the upper-level seats -- a possible suicide.

Louisiana National Guard troops fashioned a makeshift triage unit on the loading docks of the stadium. Military and civilian doctors rushed from cot to cot, monitoring oxygen levels of storm victims.

Tuesday morning, as water began rising from the breaches in the levee system, emergency personnel worked with soldiers to evacuate the worst of the sick to Baton Rouge. Medical supplies were low, and the dome is not a hospital.

"We've just exhausted our resources," said Keith Carter, the director of Paffard Medical Services. "We need to evacuate."

Lt. Col. Walter Austin, an Army chaplain, rubbed the back of an elderly woman hooked to an oxygen tank, her face twisted in tears. He whispered reassurances.

Since the storm, Austin -- a Catholic wearing a beret adorned with a cross -- had been reassuring the weary refugees at the dome.

"All people are going to be distressed, and the elderly get very distressed when they have a traumatic change in their lives," he said.

That morning, as the floodwater rose, he held a religious service. More than 1,000 people attended.

Out on the loading dock, Jose Mejilla, 45, said he walked several miles from his home to the Superdome, carrying a duffel bag with his only belongings. He slouched as he gratefully devoured an Army meal-ready-to-eat.

"I never thought I would see New Orleans this way," he said in Spanish. "I feel like I'm dead."


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