`It was absolute hell on earth'
United States - Evacuees from New Orleans arrive in Houston with stories of survival, rape and mayhem at the New Orleans Superdome.
The convoy of the damned fleeing New Orleans has arrived here bearing incredible stories of survival, first at the hands of Hurricane Katrina, then in the hell of the Superdome where they sought shelter from the killer storm.
More than 18,000 evacuees are being sheltered at the Houston Astrodome and adjoining sport facilities in what the refugees say is a paradise compared to the squalid conditions they endured in the Superdome in the days following Katrina's devastation.
"It was absolute hell on earth," said Quinteller Reaux, 29, as she picked through piles of donated food and clothing in the parking lot outside the Astrodome yesterday. "It was inhumane. They treated us worse than animals.
"We had no food, we had no water. It was hot, humid, and the entire place smelled of rotten garbage and urine.
"Pedophiles were raping young girls up in the stands," Reaux said of her stay at the Superdome.
Reaux, who worked as a housekeeper at a New Orleans hotel, said she, her husband and her sister sought shelter in the Superdome after her home was lost in the storm.
Her allegations of rape and mayhem were echoed by most refugees you talk to here, but none, it would seem, actually witnessed any rapes.
Clarence Roman, 29, said the struggle to survive became even more onerous after he and relatives were plucked from the roof of his house by boat.
The family then spent the night under a highway underpass, where they witnessed gangs fire guns, break into cars and set fires to homes, he said.
"These guys were going wild. They were looting, shooting, setting fires.
"We figured we were gonna get killed so we went to the Superdome, but that was a big mistake. I would've been better off sleeping under the Interstate," Roman said.
Conditions at the Astrodome, he said, are a huge improvement by comparison.
The former football stadium is air conditioned, and there are showers, hot meals three times a day and medical care. Upon arrival, refugees are immediately given food and water, and they also get individual cots, something that was not available at the Superdome.Officials said 18,000 evacuees were on site as of yesterday ? 15,000 in the Astrodome and 3,000 in the Reliant Arena next door. And more were on the way.
Dr. Kenneth Mattox, who is overseeing the medical treatment of the evacuees at a makeshift clinic set up in the Reliant Arena, said officials were coping as well as could be expected given that the county had only a few days to put into operation the task of housing and feeding a small city.
"It's like going on a vacation in strange country without a road map," said Mattox, a surgery professor at the Baylor College of Medicine.
So far two deaths have occurred among the refugees. One died of a suspected heart attack, the other of cancer complications. Both were elderly and may have died regardless of whether they were in a hurricane, Mattox said.
Four people had been arrested and charged for minor infractions, mainly assault, said police captain John Anderson.
"There was a fight in the shower, and a fight over a telephone and a fight over a cot," he said. "Our view is we have to stop these things so they don't get out of hand."
The evacuees have been overwhelmed by the generosity of Houstonians, who have responded to the crisis by dropping off food and clothing at the stadium.
Because there is no system of distribution in place, locals have been leaving the donations in the stadium's parking lot, resulting in traffic jams.
When word out got out about the parking-lot donations, thousands rushed outside and grabbed as much as they could carry before volunteers moved in to supervise the operation and move the goods indoors.
Diapers, toilet paper and toothbrushes were the most common items left by locals, as well as toys and clothing.
"I can't believe how nice these people are," said Rose O'Neal, 16, stocking up on diapers and baby food for her 8-month-old daughter, Jakira. O'Neal and her baby took shelter at a school in New Orleans but were later evacuated to Houston. She was spared the conditions at the Superdome.
Volunteer Heather Hughes was upset that authorities had not organized the drop-off. She and six others took it upon themselves to do so, to prevent rioting, she said.
"It was utter chaos. There were no police, no officials out here," said Hughes, a Houston lawyer.
"We can go into Iraq and take over a country in two days because we want their oil, but we can't even help our own people when a tragedy like this happens in our own backyard."
Barbara Cole was also critical of the organization after she spent a fruitless day at the Astrodome looking for her 81-year-old mother, Peggy St. Armant, whom she believed was among the 18,000 refugees.
Cole is sheltering 14 relatives from New Orleans at her Dallas home, but has not spoken to her mother since before the hurricane, when her mother communicated her intention to ride out the storm in the home which has been in the family since 1756. She said she was staying put, that she had some tools in the attic, Cole said.
A cousin believes he saw news footage of St. Armant being plucked from her flooded home near the French Quarter by helicopter, but no one has heard from her since. Cole said she is upset officials here did not have lists of the people who arrived on buses.
"This country is not real. We are living in La-La Land, and we learned nothing from 9/11," Cole said, saying the country needs a civil defence system so that citizens could bail themselves out in disasters instead of government.
Larry Ray, 26, a fast-food server, took a rather casual attitude to his refugee status, as he paraded outside the stadium with a handmade sign and a $5 bill pasted on his forehead, asking for someone to sell him some marijuana.
"After what I've been through, I need a toke bad," said Ray, retelling the story of the traumatic impact life in the Superdome had on his mental health.
"I think the police have more important things to worry about. I think they'll understand that I'm stressed and depressed, and I need some weed," Ray said.
Officials say they hope they can move all the refugees from the Astrodome and into area shelters or private homes within the next two weeks.
Another bit of good news yesterday came from tax collector Paul Bettencourt, who announced that all visitors who say at local hotels for more than 30 days will save 17 per cent off their hotel bill.
"Hotel occupancy taxes are not applicable to stays of 30 consecutive days or more," Bettencourt said, adding that officials are predicting it will take at least that long to remove the water from New Orleans.
"We want these families to save money for food, medicine and rebuilding," he said, "not for hotel taxes."