IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obstacles on the way to drier ground

Battered New Orleans disgorged thousands of thirsty and bedraggled residents who escaped by overstuffed car, bus and truck.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Battered New Orleans disgorged thousands of thirsty and bedraggled residents who escaped by overstuffed car, bus and military truck. The luckiest had cars to drive and a stash of gasoline. The weakest were helped aboard helicopters or hefted onto the beds of pickup trucks.

Some walked on heat-blistered feet, carrying what few belongings they could. After abandoning their homes, they waited in the streets or the open highway in 95-degree heat, begging rides from relief workers. Faced with dwindling supplies, miserable conditions and a mandatory evacuation order, they had little choice but to surrender to the growing calamity.

Many did not know where they were going -- Houston, Baton Rouge or maybe a random town beyond the city limits. No one could tell them when they would return to the besieged city, or what they would find. Today, at least, people did not seem to care.

"I've been crying all morning," said Rochelle Baxter, sheltering her three young children beneath a Mississippi River bridge. "I just want to be in a place where I can give me and my kids a bath. I want to get out of town and know that my kids are safe."

Evidence that New Orleans remained a perilous place went beyond the rooftop-swamping floodwater. It was clear in the police swoop on looters at a warehouse-district Wal-Mart and in the sight of a black-clad SWAT officer riding shotgun, assault rifle at the ready, atop a tractor hauling bottled water.

Danger rang out, too, in the shots fired at rescue workers as they guided their boats toward stranded residents, said Dale Sharp, a narcotics officer from DeRitter, La. He said that he heard several such reports on his police radio and that his crew had been targeted with rocks and bottles.

"Everybody's tired," he said, "and ready to go."

Sharp and his partner in the Beauregard Narcotics Task Force made Dana Shepard cry. She stood weeping on a debris-strewn downtown street Wednesday afternoon as the two officers poured five gallons of gasoline into her parched Nissan. Shepard had given the strangers directions, and they returned to repay the favor with a liquid ticket out of town.

"Our house is underwater. They put us out of the hotel. I was out of gas," said Shepard, 23, a Philip Morris merchandiser. "I am so thankful for these guys. Oh, Lord, thank you."

It was hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina had swept through just 48 hours earlier.

Looking like a war zone
A few blocks from where Shepard stood, refugees spilled from the battered Superdome, complaining of appalling heat and minimal services. Buses lined up outside, bound for Houston's Astrodome. Military-issue 2 1/2 -ton trucks parted the knee-deep water to carry dazed-looking residents to other destinations.

As clutches of people slogged toward him on foot, Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries officer John Volentine beckoned to them. He told them: "There are some buses going to take you out of the city. Air-conditioned and everything." A Coast Guard helicopter landed in the distance, one of a growing swarm of choppers working the city's humid skies.

"I've never been to war," said Volentine, "but I'd say it's the closest I've ever seen."

About then, lawyer Ben Hatfield sloshed up the street in shorts and yellow flip-flops. He and his family had taken refuge from Katrina on Monday on the 17th floor of a nearby office building. Things went smoothly; they hardly felt the winds howl. But then they stayed too long, unsure whether to head home or stay put.

By the time they decided to leave, the storm water had risen, blocking their car. Seeing an opening on Tuesday night, they carried Hatfield's 87-year-old father down 17 flights of stairs, only to find the garage door closed. Trapped again, they found men able to carry the elderly man back upstairs.

Hatfield, determined once more to move his family, was trying to find a team of rescue workers willing to take on the assignment. The pickings were slim in a city with vastly more needs than people to fill them. From the city's downtown to the western neighborhoods of Metairie and the southern streets of Gretna, people offered piercing and persistent complaints about the shortage of emergency personnel -- local, state and federal.

Derrick Ordogne, 34, was standing in the lee of a causeway overpass in Metairie, telling how the rising water kept pushing him and his hobbled band of friends farther and farther west. Each time they stopped to wait for help, the water would rise, turning their havens into islands and peninsulas. "We spent the night on neutral ground, with campfires and everything. We waited for someone to come pick us up, but nobody came. That's messed up," Ordogne said. "We're just waiting."

'It's the forgotten land'
Nearby, Linda King had a plan. She was holding a bus ticket to Houston when the bus station closed for Katrina's arrival. Now, she was figuring, if she could find her way to a bus, she could use the ticket and meet up with some of her nine siblings in Texas until the water subsided.

Someone had told her that if she could make it to the Huey P. Long Bridge, she could catch a passing bus.

But the bridge has no connection to bus service past or present. If King had made it, she would have been like hundreds of New Orleans residents marooned on the highways, safely above the tide but no closer to a shower, a meal or a good night's sleep.

Beneath the eastern end of the Crescent City Connection, over the Mississippi, groups of residents converged from New Orleans, Gretna and neighboring Orleans Parish. Children dripped sweat in the heat, alongside wilted grownups. Danna Harris was down to a half-gallon of water for herself and her three sons, after walking across the long bridge for the city.

"It's the forgotten land," Harris said. "The last two days . . . we've had to count string beans. I never thought I would be counting string beans. Children don't understand. My 11-year-old says as soon as we can get somewhere, he wants ice cream."