Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Desperation, death on the road to safety: Times-Picayune Breaking News Weblog

Keith Spera
Staff writer

At 91 years old, Booker Harris ended his days propped on a lawn chair, covered by a yellow quilt and abandoned, dead, in front of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Mr. Harris died in the back of a Ryder panel truck Wednesday afternoon, as he and his 93-year-old wife, Allie, were evacuated from eastern New Orleans. The truck's driver deposited Allie and her husband's body on the Convention Center Boulevard neutral ground.

And there it remained.

With 3,000 or more evacuees stranded at the convention center -- and with no apparent contingency plan or authority to deal with them -- collecting a body was no one's priority. It was just another casualty in Hurricane Katrina's wake.

A steady stream of often angry or despondent people, many from flooded Central City, trickled first toward Lee Circle and then to the convention center, hoping to be saved from increasingly desperate straits. Food, water and options had dwindled across Uptown and Central City, where looters seemed to rage almost at will, clearing out boutique clothing shops and drug stores alike. Hospitals would no longer accept emergencies, as staffers prepared to evacuate with patients.

'If you get shot,' said a security guard at Touro Infirmary, 'you%u2019ve got to go somewhere else.'

As a blazing sun and stifling humidity took their toll, 65-year-old Faye Taplin rested alone on the steps of the Christ Cathedral in the 2900 block of St. Charles Avenue. Rising water had finally chased her from her Central City home. She clutched two plastic bags containing bedding, a little food and water and insulin to treat her diabetes.

She needed help but was unsure where to find it. She wanted to walk more than 15 blocks to a rumored evacuation pickup point beneath the Pontchartrain Expressway, but she doubted that was possible.

'I'm tired,' she said. 'My feet have swollen up on me. I can't walk that far.'

The church custodian, Ken Elder, hoped to free his car from the parking lot behind the church as soon as the water went down. He rode out Katrina on the Episcopal church%u2019s altar steps and was well stocked with food. But he feared the marauding looters that roamed St. Charles Avenue after dark.

'I lived in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots,' Elder said. 'That was a piece of cake compared to this.'

Clara Wallace pushed her brother in a wheelchair down St. Charles from Fourth Street to the Pontchartrain Expressway. Suffering from diabetes and the after-effects of a stroke, he wore only a hospital robe and endured part of the journey through standing water.

'Nobody has a bathroom he can use,' Wallace, 59, said of her brother. 'Nobody would even stop to tell us if we were at the right place. What are we supposed to do?'

A man in a passing pickup truck from the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries finally directed Wallace and the 50 other evacuees under the overpass to the convention center.

But they would find little relief there.

New evacuees were being dropped off after being pulled from inundated eastern New Orleans and Carrollton, pooling with those who arrived on foot. Some had been at the convention center since Tuesday morning but had received no food, water or instructions. They waited both inside and outside the cavernous building.

The influx overwhelmed the few staffers and Louisiana National Guardsmen on hand.

With so much need and so few resources, the weakest and frailest were bound to suffer the most. Seated next to her husband's body on the neutral ground beneath the St. Joseph Street sign, Allie Harris munched on crackers, seemingly unaware of all the tragedy unfolding around her. Eventually, guardsmen loaded her into a truck and hauled her off with other elderly evacuees.

Mr. Harris' body was left behind.

Such a breakdown did not bode well for other evacuees. As the afternoon wore on, hope faded, replaced by anger.

'This is 2005,' John Murray shouted, standing in the street near Mr. Harris' body. 'It should not be like this for no catastrophe. This is pathetic.'"


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