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'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."

Walking about the perimeter of the Superdome, in brilliant sunshine and blistering heat, Bush could take no more than a few steps before angry and pleading residents clutched at him. An elderly woman could not get her thyroid medicine; another needed dialysis. A 3-week-old baby, clad only in a diaper, lay listless in her young mother's arm. She had a fever.

"I know this sounds like a stupid question," began a young woman wearing a "Home Sweet Louisiana" T-shirt, "but how are we supposed to go on as a community? As a people?"

"Be patient," Maj. Bush answered. "Help is on the way."

The president and the governor both asserted Wednesday that everyone would be moving to a spiffier football stadium. But although Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had announced at 11 a.m. a plan to evacuate the Superdome to Houston's Astrodome, Maj. Bush had received no information through mid-afternoon. By his estimate about 15,000 people remained in the Superdome, and more straggled in through the day, either wading in on foot or dropped off by a helicopter rescue effort that so far has plucked 3,000 people from the roofs of flooded homes.

Communication is spotty throughout New Orleans, which remains without power and swamped with warm, waist-high water in many places. Only one route is passable into the city and authorities have sealed it off to all but emergency vehicles, although a few media people managed to pass the checkpoint. On television, high-level officials said they hoped the evacuation would be complete in 48 hours. Public officials at the Superdome said they thought that was unrealistic. With water so high around the stadium, people can be moved only a few handfuls at a time on large-tired trucks, which will transport them to buses on the interstate.

"I have to get out of here," said Albert Bryan, 58, shirtless and wearing all his jewelry. On Sunday, he was heading west out of Metairie in a two-car convoy with his wife, sister, two sons, daughter and three grandchildren. He was stuck in horrific traffic, going nowhere, and "the radio made the Superdome sound pretty good." In they came.

"None of this has been planned," he said. "Not a single elected official has come down here in days to talk to us and tell us anything, not the mayor, not the police chief, nobody. On Sunday the colonel said his main objective was to protect and serve, and that has been a mockery. No one has materialized to do anything. I'm a social worker, and I can tell you, no one thinks about the human aspects."

"This is mass chaos," said Sgt. Jason Defess, 27, a National Guard military policeman who had been stationed on a ramp outside the Superdome since Monday. "To tell you the truth, I'd rather be in Iraq," where he was deployed for 14 months, until January. "You got your constant danger, but I had something to protect myself. [And] three meals a day. Communications. A plan. Here, they had no plan."

Glenn Martes, 13, had no plan, either, but he has a quick eye. As his family waded toward the Superdome from their destroyed home two days ago, he grabbed a football floating by, "something to calm your nerves," he said.

Inside on Wednesday, he was going long to try to catch a pass from Perrance Williams, 17, whose chest muscles gleamed under the generator lights on the field.

Williams looked good down there, as if a scout might be watching from the stands. "I play in the projects," he said. He never thought he'd be playing in the Superdome, but there he was.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company