- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Thousands of refugees were bused and airlifted to safety yesterday , leaving New Orleans to the dead and dying, and the elderly and frail stranded days without food, water or medical care.

No one knows how many were killed by Hurricane Katrina’s floods and how many more succumbed waiting to be rescued. But the bodies are everywhere: hidden in attics, floating within the ruined city, crumpled on wheelchairs, abandoned on highways.

And the dying continues — at the New Orleans convention center and at a triage center set up at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where bodies were kept in a refrigerated truck.

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said yesterday that she expected the death toll to reach the thousands. And Craig Vanderwagen, rear admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service, said one morgue alone, at a St. Gabriel prison, expected 1,000 to 2,000 bodies.

Touring the airport triage center, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican and a physician, said, “A lot more than eight to 10 people are dying a day.”

Most were those too sick or weak to survive. But not all.

Charles Womack, 30, a roofer, said he saw one man beaten to death and another commit suicide at the Superdome. Mr. Womack said he was receiving care at the airport triage center because he was beaten with a pipe at the Superdome.

“One guy jumped off a balcony. I saw him do it. He was talking to a lady about it. He said it reminded him of the war, and he couldn’t leave,” he said.

Three babies died at the convention center from heat exhaustion, said Mark Kyle, a medical-relief provider.

About 20,000 people had been waiting for rescue for nearly a week at the Superdome, with as many as 25,000 more at the convention center.

The last 300 refugees at the Superdome climbed aboard buses yesterday, eliciting cheers from members of the Texas National Guard who had been posted at the facility.

At the convention center, thousands of refugees dragged their meager belongings to buses, the mood more numb than jubilant. Yolando Sanders, who had been stuck at the convention center for five days, was among those who filed past corpses to reach the buses.

“Anyplace is better than here,” she said. “People are dying over there.”

Nearby, a woman lay dead in a wheelchair on the front steps. A man was covered in a black drape with a dry line of blood running to the gutter. Another had lain on a chaise lounge for four days, his stocking feet peeking out from under a quilt.

By midafternoon, only pockets of stragglers remained in the streets around the convention center, and New Orleans paramedics began carting away the dead.

A once-vibrant city of 480,000 people, overtaken by floods, looting, rape and arson, was now a sodden tomb.

The exact number of dead won’t be known for some time. Survivors were still being plucked from roofs and shattered highways across the city. President Bush yesterday ordered more than 7,000 active-duty forces to the Gulf Coast to assist in recovery efforts.

“There are people in apartments and hotels that you didn’t know were there,” Army Brig. Gen. Mark Graham said.

Tens of thousands of people had been evacuated from the city, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry said as many as 120,000 hurricane refugees were in 97 shelters across his state, with another 100,000 in Texas hotels and motels. Others were in Tennessee, Indiana, Arkansas and elsewhere.

Emergency workers at the Astrodome in Houston were told to expect 10,000 new arrivals daily for the next three days.

Thousands of people remained at the airport, where officials turned a terminal into a triage unit. Officials said 3,000 to 5,000 people had been treated. Others throughout the airport awaited transport out of the city.

“In the beginning it was like trying to lasso an octopus. When we got here, it was overwhelming,” said Jake Jacoby, a physician helping to run the center.

Airport director Roy Williams said about 30 people had died, some of them elderly and ill.

At the convention center, people stumbled toward the helicopters, dehydrated and nearly passing out from exhaustion. Many had to be carried by National Guard troops and police on stretchers. And some were being pushed up the street on office chairs and on dollies.

Nita LaGarde, 105, was pushed down the street in her wheelchair as her nurse’s 5-year-old granddaughter, Tanisha Blevin, held her hand. The pair spent two days in an attic, two days on an island and the last four days on the pavement in front of the convention center.

“They’re good to see,” Miss LaGarde said as she waited to be loaded onto a gray Marine helicopter. She said they were sent by God. “Whatever He has for you, He’ll take care of you. He’ll sure take care of you.”

Around the corner, a mixed fleet of luxury tour buses and yellow school buses lined up two deep to pick up some of the healthier refugees. National Guardsmen confiscated a gun, knives and letter openers from people before they got on the buses.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Derek Dabon, 29, said as he waited to pass through a checkpoint. “There’s no way I’m coming back. To what? That don’t make sense. I’m going to start a new life.”

Dan Craig, director of recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it could take up to six months to get the water out of New Orleans, and the city then would need to dry out, which could take up to three more months.

A Saks Fifth Avenue store billowed smoke yesterday, as did rows of warehouses on the east bank of the Mississippi River, where corrugated roofs buckled and tiny explosions erupted.

As the warehouse district burned, Ron Seitzer, 61, washed his dirty laundry in the even dirtier waters of the Mississippi River and said he didn’t know how much longer he could stay without water or power, surrounded by looters.

“I’ve never even had a nightmare or a beautiful dream about this,” he said as he watched the warehouses burn. “People are just not themselves.”

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