'It Was as if All of Us Were Already Pronounced Dead'

On Sept. 3, a family encountered a covered body in front of the convention center while walking to buses for evacuation.
On Sept. 3, a family encountered a covered body in front of the convention center while walking to buses for evacuation. (By Eric Gay -- Associated Press)

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By Wil Haygood and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 15, 2005

NEW ORLEANS For five eternal-seeming days, as many as 20,000 people, most of them black, waited to be rescued, not just from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina but from the nightmarish place where they had sought refuge.

During that time, the moon that hovered over the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center seemed closer than anyone who could provide those inside the center with any help.

On the fourth day, after TV had been filled with live reports from the center describing sexual assaults, robberies and gunfire, single mothers desperately seeking help for their children and fathers doing their best to protect them, the federal official charged with leading the hurricane response, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, responded to an interviewer's question by saying it was the first he had heard that people "don't have food and water in there."

"It was as if all of us were already pronounced dead," said Tony Cash, 25, who endured three nights of hunger, violence and darkness at the convention center. "As if somebody already had the body bags. Wasn't nobody coming to get us."

No one has been able to say how many people died inside the convention center; police, military and center officials estimate the number is about 10. Nor has there been any attempt to document the number of assaults, robberies and rapes that eyewitnesses said occurred from the time the first people broke into the convention center seeking shelter on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 29, and when units of the Arkansas National Guard moved into the center on Friday, Sept. 2.

But even without those numbers, what happened in the convention center stands as a harsh indictment of government's failure to help its citizens when they needed it most. That futility was symbolized by the presence in the convention center for three of the most chaotic days of at least 250 armed troops from the Louisiana National Guard. They were camped out in a huge exhibition hall separated from the crowd by a wall, and used their trucks as a barricade when they were afraid the crowd would break in.

The troops were never deployed to restore order and eventually withdrew, despite the pleas of the convention center's management. Louisiana Guard commanders said their units' mission was not to secure the facility, and soldiers on the scene feared inciting further bloodshed if they had intervened. "We didn't want another Kent State," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of the active-duty military forces responding to Katrina. "They weren't trained for crowd control."

In more than 70 interviews, with both military and law enforcement officials -- who were themselves sometimes inside the center -- and with many of the survivors who suffered over the course of several nights, a chilling portrait emerges of anarchy and violence, exacerbated by young men from rival housing projects -- Magnolia, St. Bernard, Iberville, Calliope.

"Everywhere I went, I saw people with guns in their hands," said Troy Harris, 18. "They were putting guns to people's heads."

Recounting their pleas for milk for their babies, for food, for protection, many survivors described the same sense of bewilderment and anger -- broadcast, surreally, on live television. "This is America," one woman shouted into the TV cameras. What she meant was, this is not supposed to happen here.

Too Late to Leave

It was Saturday, Aug. 27, when New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin pleaded with city residents to leave. Katrina would be on land in less than two days. A day earlier, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had declared a state of emergency, prompting heightened preparation by the Louisiana National Guard.

But by this point, the appeals from Blanco and Nagin were aimed at one group in particular -- the poor. Those with resources had already bolted.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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