The last 300 refugees in the Superdome climbed aboard buses Saturday bound for new temporary shelter, leaving behind a darkened and stinking arena strewn with trash.
The sight of the last person — an elderly man wearing a Houston Rockets cap — prompted cheers from members of the Texas National Guard who were guarding the facility.
“I feel like I’ve been here 40 years,” said Louis Dalmas Sr., one of the last people out. “Any bus going anywhere — that’s all I want.”
Inside and outside the Superdome — including the concourse around it and a 50-yard bridge that connects it to a shopping center — was a sea of trash up to 5 feet deep.
Evacuations of the last remaining refugees at the arena were halted before dawn Saturday as authorities diverted buses to help some 25,000 refugees at the New Orleans Convention Center, where officials said people had been waiting longer.
The Texas Air National Guard estimated that between 2,000 and 5,000 people remained at the Superdome early on Saturday amid a frightening scene of filth, violence and despair. Lt. Kevin Cowan of the state Office of Emergency Preparedness put the figure at 2,000, and said they had recently begun flocking there not for shelter, but to escape New Orleans after they heard buses were arriving.
Those left behind were orderly, sitting down after being told that evacuations were temporarily stalled. Cleanup crews raked away the piles of abandoned goods to discourage rats, and the scene was calm as the exhausted refugees patiently waited in five lines for their place on a bus.
Tina Miller, 47, had no shoes and cried with relief and exhaustion as she left the Superdome and walked toward a bus. “I never thought I’d make it. Oh, God, I thought I’d die in there. I’ve never been through anything this awful.”
The arena’s second-story concourse looked like a dump, with more than a foot of trash except in the occasional area where people were working to keep things as tidy as possible.
Bathrooms had no lights, making people afraid to enter, and the stench from backed-up toilets inside killed any inclination toward bravery.
“When we have to go to the bathroom we just get a box. That’s all you can do now,” said Sandra Jones.
Her newborn baby was running a fever, and all the small children in her area had rashes, she said.
“This was the worst night of my life. We were really scared. We’re getting no help. I know the military police are trying. But they’re outnumbered,” Jones said.
Guard members reported that the massive evacuation operation for the most part had gone smoothly Friday. About 20,000 people were in the dome when efforts began, and that number swelled as people poured in to get a ride out of town, Capt. John Pollard said.
After most of those people were on their way to safety, buses started arriving at the convention center about 9:30 a.m.
Shortly after that, five buses pulled up the dome. Officials are pressing for complete evacuation of the dome so they can set up a staging area, which is near City Hall and the emergency command center.
At one point Friday, the evacuation was interrupted briefly when school buses pulled up so some 700 guests and employees from the Hyatt Hotel could move to the head of the evacuation line — much to the amazement of those who had been crammed in the Superdome since last Sunday.
“How does this work? They (are) clean, they are dry, they get out ahead of us?” exclaimed Howard Blue, 22, who tried to get in their line. The National Guard blocked him as other guardsmen helped the well-dressed guests with their luggage.
The 700 had been trapped in the hotel, near the Superdome, but conditions were considerably cleaner, even without running water, than the unsanitary crush inside the dome. The Hyatt was severely damaged by the storm. Every pane of glass on the riverside wall was blown out.
Mayor Ray Nagin has used the hotel as a base since it sits across the street from city hall, and there were reports the hotel was cleared with priority to make room for police, firefighters and other officials.
Conditions in the Superdome remained unbearable even as the crowd shrank after buses ferried thousands to Houston a day earlier. Much of the medical staff that had been working in the “special needs” arena had been evacuated.
Dr. Kenneth Stephens Sr., head of the medical operations, said he was told they would be moved to help in other medical areas.
Those who wanted food were waiting in line for hours to get it, said Becky Larue, of Des Moines, Iowa.
Larue and her husband arrived in the area last week for a vacation but their hotel soon told them they had to leave and directed them to the Superdome. No directions were provided, she said.
“I’m really scared. I think people are going into a survival mode. I look for people to start injuring themselves just to get out of here,” she said.
Larue said she was down to her last blood pressure pill and had no idea of when they’ll get out or where to get help.
James LeFlere, 56, was trying to remain optimistic.
“They’re going to get us out of here. It’s just hard to hang on at this point,” he said.
Janice Singleton, a worker at the Superdome, said she got stuck in the stadium when the storm hit. She said she was robbed of everything she had with her, including her shoes.
“They tore that dome apart,” she said sadly. “They tore it down. They're taking everything out of there they can take.”
Then she said, “I don’t want to go to no Astrodome. I’ve been domed almost to death.”