Scores of patients -- many still in cotton gowns from hospitals that have shut down -- lay on stretchers or sat in wheelchairs at New Orleans International Airport on Thursday night as the facility was transformed from a quiet way station operating on emergency power to the hub of the city's rescue operation.

Several thousand refugees from New Orleans descended on the airport within a matter of hours. Police set up checkpoints to stop more from arriving on foot, yet fleets of ambulances and helicopters continued to deliver the sick and able-bodied alike, all determined to flee the city. As pressure and numbers built, police searched for barricades to divide the throng.

Doctors and nurses recruited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency struggled to keep order and tend to the sick.

"Oh, my God, it's overwhelming. Hundreds of people. Everybody needs something, and you don't know where to start," said Nanette Nealy, a volunteer nurse from Mandeville, La., working in a canvas MASH tent erected inside Terminal D for critical care patients.

John Marque, 78, sweated through his shirt, medicine spilling from a plastic bag, a long line of ailing people ahead of him. Plucked by a boat from his home, piled onto a bus, dropped beneath a bridge and then airlifted by helicopter, the lawyer and banker reached the airport to find the place nearly overrun.

"I've never seen such disorganization. Never," Marque said. "It reminds me of Dante's hell."

-- Peter Slevin