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Katrina's Rising Toll

First Fear, Then Loathing at Superdome

August 31, 2005|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The stench inside the Louisiana Superdome was the worst of it.

It was the smell of refugees who hadn't bathed in days in a facility where the bathrooms were filthy, bins were stuffed with trash and 20,000 people were cooped up with no place to go.

The roof had holes in it, and dozens of people spent the night on the concourse outside the stadium for the coolness -- such as it was -- and more important, a breath of fresh air. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the air conditioning had been off since Monday. Three displaced hospital patients died in the dome.

Still, the Superdome offered shelter from the water that rose even higher Tuesday because of breached levees and the inability to pump it out of the city, which is below sea level. The breach sent water lapping at the steps of the dome, raising at least the specter that conditions could worsen for those inside the landmark stadium.

The dome, on the edge of downtown, was state of the art when it went up in 1975. It covers 13 acres and requires 9,000 tons of air conditioning equipment to keep it a comfortable 72 degrees. The arena is the home of the New Orleans Saints and the Sugar Bowl and was the site of the 1988 Republican National Convention.

The top layer of the roof is gone. Under that, in half a dozen places, entire sections of the ceiling have come off, leaving a view of the sky. People who were in the stadium when the hurricane hit told of the abject fear that filled them.

When the roof started peeling away, said Tyrone Brinson, 47, "it was terrible in here. Terrible. It sounded like this place was under attack. It started over there in that corner, right over by that Coke sign. It sounded like somebody was coming through the wall. I thought the roof might go, the building, the whole thing."

Rainwater pooled on the roof and became so heavy that it poured down on the people.

Brinson was a child when Hurricane Betsy came through New Orleans. He said this was the first time he had ever left his home for a storm, coming to the dome with his wife.

"She slept through it. I couldn't believe it," he said. "When she finally woke up I told her, 'You're lucky you're sleeping because if you were awake for it, you'd have wanted to run out of here.' "

Lynette Wilson, 51, said being alive is the best present she could have asked for.

"It was good at first, it was fine. Then we started hearing all this noise. The first piece popped out, and then we saw another one and another one and another one. I never thought I'd see this."

In the end, said Willie Fluker, 48, a maintenance worker and New Orleans native, "everybody kept their cool. But it's not something you would ever want to go through again."

On Tuesday morning, Gen. Ralph Lupin, commander of the National Guard troops sent to the Superdome, told Associated Press: "We're doing everything we can to keep these people comfortable. It's not getting any better, but we're trying not to let it get worse.

"I know people want to leave, but they can't leave," he said. "There's 3 feet of water around the Superdome."

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