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'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)

Many simply had no way of leaving on their own. Many who had survived hurricanes figured this wouldn't get them, either. "They tend to look at evacuation orders as scare tactics," said Troy Jarreau, a New Orleans schoolteacher who has taught many children from impoverished households.

But by Monday, after Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees had broken, a different reality was clear. "Get out! Get out now!" was the message on WYLD ("Wild for Jesus"), a popular black radio station. It was repeated on Q93-FM, heavy with rhythm and blues and rap music.

This time, those who stayed behind found themselves wading, or swimming, using every ounce of energy to get themselves to the Louisiana Superdome, which had served as a refuge in previous hurricanes. But the indoor stadium had begun filling as early as Sunday, and by the next day, officials had started turning people away. It was becoming overcrowded, and the floodwaters had begun to encircle it.

The convention center, a sprawling complex of meeting halls nearly a mile long near the Mississippi River, was never intended as a shelter, said Capt. M.A. Pfeiffer, an operations officer with the New Orleans Police Department. "It was supposed to be a bus stop where they dropped people off for transportation. The problem was, the transportation never came."

As rising water engulfed the Superdome on Monday, trucks and vans that were rescuing people from the I-10 overpass and other locations began dropping them off on the dry road in front of the center. It was the only option, police said. Quickly, the crowd grew to 1,000 people.

Katrina had ripped a hole in the center's roof, dumping pools of rainwater into Hall C in the middle of the huge complex. The center lost electricity and water pressure, but otherwise damage was not severe.

Monitoring the damage were about 40 essential convention workers -- carpenters, electricians and unarmed security guards -- supervised by the center's president, Jimmie Fore, who had arrived there Sunday determined to ride out the storm. Joining them were about 300 other employees and their families seeking shelter.

As a crowd gathered outside and it became dark, Fore said he sensed trouble, so he went down to the sidewalk and made an appeal. He warned those arriving that the center had no food, water, electricity, medical care or other provisions to serve as a shelter. They ignored him. "They just kept coming," he said.

Security guards had locked the building, but later that night, people began yanking on the doors and eventually opened one. "Once one got in, they let all the others in," said Fore, explaining that the doors had "panic hardware" and could not be locked on the inside.

At the Superdome, officials had devised a security plan to check for weapons. No such plan was put into place for the convention center, even as the numbers of people seeking shelter swelled and swelled.

Descent Into Danger

Leon Doby, 26, had gotten daughters Leah, 1, and Khaylin, 3, out of their home, put them in a crate, tied the crate with rope to his waist, then began swimming. He hustled his way, finally, onto a motorboat. It sped off to the Superdome, all aboard exhausted.

At the Superdome, they were rebuffed, and pointed in the direction of the convention center, 10 blocks away.

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