NEW ORLEANS—An Army dump truck carrying a heavily armed unit from the Louisiana National Guard rumbled down Convention Center Boulevard on Friday. Hostile territory drew closer.
First came a few families huddled in storefronts, then some people napping in oily gutters. A shirtless man jeered as he walked past. A woman in a torn blue dress begged for a bottle of water.
The soldiers approached their objective. Soda cans and candy wrappers covered the pavement to the horizon. A sweaty, writhing mass of humanity appeared in front of them as they pulled into a sprawling parking lot.
"Good God Almighty," one soldier whispered under his breath.
With that, the Louisiana National Guard's Special Response Team deployed in front of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. They were the first troops to arrive at the shelter where, for days, looters had terrorized evacuees, and the unlucky had died in the streets outside.
Accompanied by a Knight Ridder reporter and two other journalists, the men and women of the special response team leapt from the cab and spread out into a ragged square in the parking lot.
Trained to secure dangerous places, the unit is the National Guard's SWAT team. Its members wear black caps and sport silver badges. Most declined to give their names.
"We moved in first to secure the Superdome. Now our mission is to secure the convention center," said Lt. James Magee, shortly before the roughly 40 soldiers packed into the dump truck took up their positions, their boots crunching over a carpet of empty water bottles.
The soldiers came from towns across Louisiana. Most had been to Iraq or Afghanistan, but Friday was different.
They'd never been called on to secure the lawless streets of a ravaged American city.
As the truck eased down the Superdome ramp, some of the evacuees on the concourse overlooking the ramp clapped. One yelled a profanity.
"We'll be back," one soldier shot back.
"Thank you," another soldier said, sarcastically.
The devastation became apparent as the soldiers stopped at a staging ground at the corner of Loyola Avenue and Poydras Street. A billboard had been torn away. Smoke from a distant fire billowed over the skyscrapers. It wasn't too different from Iraq.
"It's unreal," Sgt. Carlos Rossell said. "But this is what we do."
With Army efficiency, the caravan led by the special response team moved at a turtle's pace. In Cajun drawls, the men longed for the pleasures of life: a big hug from the old lady; a huge T-bone from Outback Steakhouse; a platter of chicken wings from Hooters; a two-hour bath, no phone calls please.
Finally, the road cleared. The dump truck speeded up.
"Guys, there's going to be a lot of military out there," one soldier barked. "Beware of friendly fire."
Their automatic rifles locked and loaded, the soldiers pulled up to the convention center to a chorus of cheers and boos. Even though they'd spent the better part of the past week in the Superdome squalor, the convention center's streets seemed different.
The men fanned out, inspecting bombed-out cars with corrugated metal sheets attached to their roofs, empty tins of Danish cookies and, in one, a collection of country records. The smell of urine drifted in the thick, suffocating air.
A group of evacuees, prodded by the soldiers, relocated to the street, one elderly woman shuffling along painfully on a walker. They seemed happy to do so.
The war-zone tension subsided. The looters weren't fools: They melted away. The rest of the people needed help.
Guarded by the special response team, Army trucks began pushing the abandoned cars to the edges of the lot to make room for food supplies. More National Guard troops arrived to begin setting up food lines.
The soldiers assured the evacuees that medics were on the way. Four nurses, all stuck in New Orleans from out of town, had been caring for elderly people at the convention center with diabetes, sickle-cell anemia and dehydration.
Several soldiers, including Rossell—a Guatemalan-American and the only Spanish speaker in the unit—were dispatched to find a Spanish dignitary who'd been stranded in the convention center for two days.
An hour later, as some sense of order began to take hold in front of the center, the Guardsmen baked in the sun, eating instant Army chow.
Rossell emerged with the Spanish dignitary, Lourdes Munoz Santamaria, then sat down with a family and helped them figure out Meals Ready to Eat.
The unit's job was done for the moment. Later, the soldiers were scheduled to head out to patrol the streets.
(Ovalle reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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