- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For this city’s poor, homeless and frail, just getting into the massive Louisiana Superdome and hunkering down was the hardest part of escaping the wrath of Hurricane Katrina yesterday.

The sickest among them didn’t flee as much as they hobbled to safety on crutches, canes and stretchers. The rest lined up for blocks in the muggy heat, clutching meager belongings and crying children as National Guardsmen searched them for guns, knives and drugs.

“We just took the necessities,” said Michael Skipper, who pulled a wagon loaded with bags of clothes and a radio. “The good stuff — the television and the furniture — you just have to hope something’s there when you get back. If it’s not, you just start over.”

New Orleans’ most frail residents got priority for placement in the makeshift Superdome shelter, by far the most solid of the Big Easy’s 10 refuges of last resort for the estimated 100,000 city residents who don’t have the means or strength to join a mandatory evacuation.

The dome, with its bare floor and stadium seats, is likely to be their home for the next few days as the hurricane hits and the region deals with its aftermath.

“They told us not to stay in our houses because it wasn’t safe,” said Victoria Young, 76, who sat amid plastic bags and a metal walker. “It’s not safe anywhere when you’re in the shape we’re in.”

Curtis Cockran, 54, a diabetic who recently underwent hip surgery, sat in his wheelchair on a loading dock at the dome while nurses, emergency technicians and doctors attended to refugees’ needs.

“I just want a place I can be quiet and left alone,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll have a place to go back to, but there’s no reason to worry about that now. For the time being, I just want to be safe.”

More serious cases had to be taken to other cities in Louisiana for medical care.

“There are some conditions we just can’t handle here,” said Dr. Kevin Stephens Sr., head of New Orleans’ health department. “Like dialysis — we can’t do that, and they’ll be here three or four days, so they’ll need it before then.”

The 77,000-seat stadium, home to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and New Year’s Sugar Bowl game, provided few comforts but at least had bathrooms for the refugees and food donated by several charities.

“They may be here for a while,” said Gen. Ralph Lupin, the National Guard officer in charge of the shelter. “The electricity will be out after the storm; streets will be almost impassable. So once they get here, they’ll have to stay for the duration.”

Guardsmen made able-bodied people clasp their hands behind their backs while they patted them down, feeling the seams and hems of clothing, then ran metal detectors over them. The backpacks, suitcases and plastic grocery bags that held their belongings were searched.

“They took my cigarettes and lighter,” said Alice George, 76, a homeless woman. “I guess I’ll do without.”

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