The concourse outside the battered Louisiana Superdome resembled a day-of-the-locusts panorama Friday morning: thousands of souls crying and begging and pleading for help.
"It was like demons were here last night," Tinisha Green said. "Every time you tried to sleep, you popped up because people were messing with people's children in there. I mean, Lord Jesus, my mind is so messed up behind all of this."
Air National Guardsmen shouldering M-16s were trying to organize a departure onto waiting buses. But the heat, anger and misery constantly conspired against calm.
"They should have told people that the levees were going to bust," said Louis Seaton, who had somehow made his way to the front of the throng, holding onto the stretched rope, as prideful for his position as a man with a winning lottery ticket.
But he was hardly smiling. "Where do you use the bathroom when there's nowhere to use the bathroom?"
A second later a woman three feet away from Seaton vomited and suddenly collapsed. Seaton could only afford her a cursory glance. He continued -- over the din of flying-by Black Hawk helicopters: "This whole scene is madness. And the government made it madness. The government, the system. They must have known the levee was going to bust."
"Make a hole! Make a hole!" a guardsman shouted after other soldiers had lifted the fainted woman from the concrete, her arms fallen to the side, her eyes closed, children nibbling at their fingernails, the edges of their little shirts, staring upward.
"Last night was the worst night of my life," Seaton added. "This man up here, well, he was trying to choke this little boy. They whipped him down. Then they threw him over the railing."
Several others in the crowd -- shoulder-to-shoulder, desperate-looking -- nodded in assent. Sure enough, at the bottom of the railing lay a prostrate figure sprawled on the concrete, twisted and motionless, the side of his face grown like a cantaloupe. It was not clear if it was the same person Seaton was referring to or another victim, in some way, of Hurricane Katrina.
"Nobody wants us," Seaton continued. "Texas, Florida. They don't really want us. I'd love to know just where are we going?" His voice had started to crack, a man high atop a city with nowhere to go, his home in the 8th Ward of New Orleans under water.
"Make a hole! Make a hole!" This time, it was a huge man in blue jeans and a black sweatshirt. He was being held up by soldiers, though his feet were dragging and his head had fallen onto his shoulder like a bruised plum.
"My wife is in Texas," Seaton said. "I got $2 in my pocket. How do I find her? Her name is Jane Seaton." He spelled her name out, as if that somehow might quicken her discovery.
A soldier announced that a Black Hawk was coming to blow air down on them -- "to cool you off a bit," he said. A sea of black faces turned upward, as if the piece of machinery would appear right away, which it did not.
"I don't believe they would have put blacks and whites together up on this roof," Seaton said. "Might have started a revolution." He leaned across the rope as he offered that sociological insight.
"Make a hole! Make a hole!" Now it was a little girl, wearing purple jeans rolled up to her knees, eyes closed, possible dehydration, a woman crying after her.
"It's so many people," said Brian Mandel, a 22-year-old senior airman at Lackland Air Force Base. He allowed as to how he's only gotten "three, four hours of sleep" in the past two days.
Down at street level, throngs poured up and down the nearby highway. Many waved empty water jugs like jack-o-lanterns. Those without water seemed grateful to be clutching onto a bottle of orange or grape or lemon-lime soda.
"Been in New Orleans 41 years, and now I'm ready to go," said Darlene Franklin, 41. She said she had been walking two straight days. "And I got my two grandbabies with me. This don't make no sense. No sense at all." She talked with anger, flashing gold teeth and something that seemed months away from growing into a smile. She flicked the ash on her cigarette, drawing her arm away from her grandbaby to do so. "We need help out here!"
A man walked up, wearing a T-shirt, work pants and moccasins. Raymond Williams had been a nomad for four days. "My wife's got cancer," he said. "Throat cancer. And I got prostate cancer." He was accompanied by his wife, Leona, and 15 grandchildren. They were carrying their belongings in plastic bags. The Superdome was in the distance, like a painful mirage. "Both me and my wife are on medication. Leona, show him your neck."
She pulled down a handkerchief that had been tied around her neck. The bandages that covered the incisions made from her throat cancer surgery were the color of river water. "We holding on through the grace of the Lord," Leona Williams said, in a pink blouse that somehow still looked very nice and pretty.
Every minute or so, Raymond Williams would twirl his neck, gathering his grandchildren close as possible, only to have them ease back out into the road, like figures on a bobbing raft.