Inside the Superdome

'And Now We Are in Hell'

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 31 -- Rochelle Montrel, dedicated middle school teacher, thought she should stay in town to prepare for the first day of classes. "We have all this testing now, earlier and earlier," she said Wednesday, "and I wanted to be ready."

Instead, she spent Monday clinging to her roof, and that turned to Tuesday, and then "the wonderful man" in the helicopter finally swooped in, after 24 hours, and delivered Montrel, her mother, father, sister and the poodle onto the ramp outside the Superdome. They had lived.

"We were so grateful," said Montrel, 35, "and now we are in hell."

There are four levels of hell inside the refugee city of the Superdome, home to about 15,000 people since Sunday. On the artificial-turf field and in the lower-level seats where Montrel sat sweltering with her family, a form of civilization had taken hold -- smelly, messy, dark and dank, but with a structure. Families with cots used their beds as boundaries for personal space and kept their areas orderly, a cooler on one corner, the toys on another, almost as if they had come for fireworks and stayed too long.

The bathrooms, clogged and overflowing since Monday, announced the second level of hell, the walkway ringing the entrance level. In the men's, the urinal troughs were overflowing. In the women's, the bowls were to the brim. A slime of excrement and urine made the walkway slick. "You don't even go there anymore," said Dee Ford, 37, who was pushed in a wading pool from her flooded house to the shelter. "You just go somewhere in a corner where you can. In the dark, you are going to step in poo anyway."

Water and electricity both failed Monday, and three pumps to pressurize plumbing have been no match "when the lake just keeps pushing it back at us," said Maj. Ed Bush, the chief public affairs officer for the Louisiana National Guard.

"With no hand-washing, and all the excrement," said Sgt. Debra Williams, who was staffing the infirmary in the adjacent sports arena, "you have about four days until dysentery sets in. And it's been four days today."

Bottled water was too precious to use for washing; adults get two bottles a day. Food, mostly Meals Ready-to-Eat, is dispensed in a different line. Many refugees told of waiting in line for hours only to be told no food was left.

Within the skyboxes, on the third level of hell, life was dark 24 hours a day, a place for abandonment and coupling. Also up there was "a sort of speakeasy," said Michael Childs, who had some beer in an empty Dannon water bottle. "You got to know where to go," he said, and grinned. "And you just put your bottle under the spigot. It is disgusting in here, and I lost everything I had, and I'm glad to have found a little beer."

On the fourth level, the darkest and highest of all, the lurkers lived, scary in the shadows. The fourth level, people explained, was for the gangsters and the druggies. The rumors sprang from there: Two girls had been raped; one girl had been raped and one killed. Someone was abducting newborns. A man had jumped from there and died. A murder had occurred.

"None of that," said Maj. Bush, who had been at the Superdome, along with about 200 other Guard members and a few New Orleans policemen, since Monday. An older man did jump to his death, but not from the fourth level. Two residents died, and two were born, both births attended by a physician. Bush did not know if either child had been named Katrina.

"This is a tough go of it," he acknowledged. "People have been surprisingly well-behaved."

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