NEW ORLEANS—Convoys of buses ferried refugees from the squalor of the Superdome on Thursday as thousands of other residents groped on foot through debris and floodwaters—many unsure of their destinations—in a massive exodus from New Orleans.
By midday, more than 5,000 homeless New Orleans residents had been transplanted to the Astrodome more than 350 miles west in Houston. Other cities also offered lodging and public facilities to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. President Bush described the evacuation as vital to preventing further loss of life.
Yet death was present even among those lining up on the elevated plaza outside the Superdome waiting their turn at the buses. One woman died from heat exhaustion in the arms of a police officer as the crowds pressed close.
"All they want to know is, when are they getting out of here," said Maj. Ed Bush, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard. "We're prepared to do this all night as long as the buses keep coming,"
Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a total evacuation of New Orleans and proclaimed the legendary Southern city uninhabitable after Katrina stormed across the Gulf Coast on Monday with winds up to 145 mph. Nagin predicted the death toll could reach into the thousands.
In a statement read on CNN, Nagin issued a "desperate SOS" for more food and buses.
"Right now we are out of resources at the (Ernest N. Morial) Convention Center and don't anticipate enough buses," he said, speaking of another place sheltering refugees. "Currently the Convention Center is unsanitary and unsafe and we are running out of supplies for 15,000 to 25,000 people."
Thousands left New Orleans before the storm, but as many as 100,000 stayed behind, including some 15,000 to 25,000 mostly poor residents who sought refuge in the Superdome.
In neighboring Texas, Gov. Rick Perry offered to house 25,000 refugees in Houston, 25,000 in Dallas-Fort Worth and 25,000 in San Antonio. Arrangements were still in flux for accommodations in Dallas, but San Antonio officials were readying the Joe Freeman Coliseum, an air-conditioned arena near the SBC Center, home of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. Officials estimated that refugees had taken up 45,000 Houston-area hotel rooms in addition to the Astrodome.
Evacuees from the Superdome, including many who'd arrived at the shelter on Sunday, walked Thursday from the building through an adjacent mall and then through the ground-floor concourse of a downtown hotel. Then they walked through a foot of water to get on buses that would take them to the Astrodome.
"Where are we going?" Denise Honore asked, her arms wrapped around the waists of her 8- and 15-year-old daughters.
People grew frantic in the morning heat as they waited on the elevated plaza. They raised their hands, hoping that their families would be chosen to go next. Soldiers and police passed out bottles of water and small containers of chocolate pudding, which children scooped out with their fingers.
Most people were wearing and carrying their only remaining possessions, some in tattered cardboard boxes on the tops of their heads.
"We'll go wherever they can bring us," said Jane Seaton, who was one of 17 people who'd been rescued from the roof of her home after the storm. "I'm a nurse, I can work anywhere."
The buses left almost as quickly as they arrived. They filled and left so fast that Louisiana Army National Guard Col. Thomas Beron and the officials overseeing the evacuation weren't sure how many had left by midafternoon.
But with 40 people on each bus, the flow was a mere trickle.
Conditions were so bad in the Superdome that most people milled around the exterior concourse, waiting to get out. Someone had started a small fire inside, and the smoke puffed out in an odious fog. Feces and garbage littered the area around the dome. People sat on the ground, leaning against stinking piles of trash bags.
The toilets inside had stopped working days ago, and people had nowhere to go to the bathroom outside. The National Guard allowed a few elderly people to squat over bedpans behind one of their trucks. Mothers had to ration diapers by letting them reach maximum saturation before changing them.
Some people didn't wait for the buses. Keith Berry, 42, and a friend left the Superdome around 8 a.m. and waded through 3 feet of water to see whether they could exit a parking garage nearby, where they'd been storing a car. They found a clear route out to Loyola Street, the same exit route the evacuation buses were using.
Some, such as Vonsheila Smith, said they'd given up on their hometown and hoped to begin a new life in Houston—or somewhere else.
"Wherever we go, we're going with nothing and we're starting over," Smith said. "We know we're not coming back."
Throngs of residents, all bearing tales of desperation, crowded a Mississippi River bridge as they fled their stricken city on foot. Others struggled to reach the Superdome and one of the buses that could carry them to safety.
"Our roof caved in four days ago. We've got mosquitoes, roaches, rats, everything. It's crazy," said Charles Burton, 23, who was accompanying his pregnant 17-year-old sister. "The police passed by us—they say we're supposed to evacuate. How? We don't have a car."
W.C. Clanton, 67, a former postal worker, had fled his home in the Gentilly section of New Orleans on Tuesday when the water began rising. His destination? "Wherever," he said. "I just want to get out of Dodge."
Throughout the day, large touring buses spilled into the parking lots of Houston's Astrodome. Only 2,000 cots had been arrayed on the Astrodome floor, leaving many without a place to lie down. But most of the newcomers, still shaken by the catastrophe to the east, welcomed their new accommodations.
"There's so much chaos down there," said James Hollins, a resident of New Orleans who took his pregnant girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter through waist-high water from their home to the Superdome. "You imagine it would be bad—just not this bad."
(Dave Montgomery of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram compiled this story from dispatches from Bolstad, who reports for The Miami Herald, William Douglas, Chris Adams and David Wethe of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA
Need to map