A brand new city has arisen inside the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, population 15,000. Not the best address in America - they gave it its own postal code, 77230 - but it offers some benefits to its residents. It is almost clean, more or less safe and entirely dry. No longer are these people clinging to the roofs of houses above swirling waters or squatting on elevated roadways in the sun unsure if they will live or die.
And, happily, they are no longer cowering in the New Orleans Superdome, a place that turned mad with murders, rapes, suicide, abortions and the ammonia fumes of human waste. Or imprisoned in the convention center without food or water, in the company of corpses. Those two places of sanctuary became hell-holes of a kind unthinkable in the United States of America. Until last week.
No doubt, the new arrivals in the Astrodome are among the blessed of New Orleans. But most are nowhere near the end of their ordeal. Their faces have that blank, glazed look of people mentally overwhelmed. Thousands have another anguish: loved ones are missing. Some vanished during the chaotic bus transfer from New Orleans to here. They will probably be found - eventually. Others have not been seen or heard from since the first hours of the storm.
Gabrielle Benson, 40, has to think for a second. It is five, she says, the number of her family who are unaccounted for. "I don't know where my mum and dad are and I have three kids of mine who are missing." Two other children are with her. Ms Benson is calm about the missing kids. They survived the storm and were with her in the New Orleans Superdome all last week. They got lost in the pandemonium of boarding the buses. Quite likely, they are in a different city by now.
It is the mess with the buses that makes Ms Benson most angry. She and her family had abandoned their home in the projects last Sunday and fled immediately to the Superdome. The stampede for the buses began on Thursday. She described soldiers of the National Guard barking orders - "Make a hole, make a hole, that was their favorite order," she says - and making no effort to keep parents and children together. "They treated us like dirt, like dirt. They wouldn't even help my kids when they got lost. 'Ma'am, you've got to stay behind the barricade' is all they said." The soldiers did at least give them water while they waited - throwing bottles into the crowd. "Just popping people on the head with them."
But if getting on the buses was hard, what came before was far worse for many among these evacuees. Thousands never made it to the Superdome or to the convention center Some now are saying they are glad of it, like Ruby Taylor.
Ms Taylor was not a looter exactly, but the looting helped save her life. She is tall and proud, and 62 years old. Eating a Red Cross dinner here on Saturday of rice, beans and diced beef steak, she describes fleeing her first-floor apartment on Monday, when the water had risen almost to her shoulders, and wading to the local school. "We were fortunate because we had the school kitchens, so we got all the food they was looting and cooked it," she recalls with a brief smile. Surrounded by water on all sides and eventually forced to the third floor of the school, she and everyone else watched in frustration as their SOS signs went unheeded by circling helicopters for two days. "I know they saw our signs," she says. "I know they did." Finally, on Wednesday, boats arrived and they were taken to an interstate causeway just west of the city. There they remained - without food or shelter - for 30 hours, until the first buses arrived.
Many people here described similar hours of desperation in the open air - on elevated roadways, beneath bridges, even in mosquito-infested fields - before the buses arrived. Many had hopped from one location to the next over several days, fleeing the water - from their own home, to homes of friends that were still above the water level, to roofs, and to the elevated roads that are all around the city. Some, like Linda Bertoniere, clung to lampposts to stay alive. Others had to leap from rooftop to rooftop.
Yet, it is the testimony of those who did as they were told and responded to government appeals to take refuge in the New Orleans Superdome and the convention center who are now coming forth, here and in other evacuee shelters, with stories of deprivation and danger almost too awful to fathom.
Devan Allen is 11 years old. Here with his dad, he gingerly approaches to tell what he saw in the Superdome. They were things no child should witness. Like the moment on Tuesday - or was it Wednesday? The days have blurred together for everyone here - when a man stood on one of the balconies and screamed so everyone could hear that he had lost everyone in the storm and now he would die also. He dived headfirst on to the playing field below, his head bursting open. Devan shouldn't have seen that. Nor should he have heard the gunshots. Nor the whispers of the girls who were raped and stabbed to death, right there with him in the Superdome. Or of the boy who was raped.
"I was scared," says Devan. "I knew that there was rapes going on and they said they were men snatching the boys." He recalls the suicide: "He just jumped right off." Like so many of the adults, he also remembers the ordeal of boarding the buses. "It was a big old crowd all right. It was terrible."
James Allen, his father, is among those boiling with anger with what they found when they fled to the Superdome. "We went there because we thought we would be safe, but instead we were more inmates than anything." James, 31, was born in New Orleans. After what happened in the Superdome, he says, he will never, ever, go back to the city. "I can't go back there after what we've been through." By the last night, he says, the soldiers of the National Guard had given up even patrolling the inside of the arena, leaving it to succumb to its own ugliness and anarchy.
The details of the stories from inside the Superdome vary slightly depending on who is telling them. The accuracy of some of the details cannot yet be proven. It will be one of the elements of the bungling of the rescue effort that will be a subject of official investigations. But Gaynell Farrell, 56, who has worked for the Whitney National Bank in New Orleans for 27 years - her husband rode the storm out in a suburb of New Orleans and has survived - says she is certain of what she saw and heard. If there is an official investigation of events in the arena, Ms Farrell might want to testify.
"You don't want to know what it was like. We had killings, abortions, babies born, toilets stacked up and it was hot, hot, hot." Pressed for details, she doesn't hesitate. She speaks of two girls being raped and murdered inside the dome, one aged seven. The other was 16 and was "slit open" by a knife after she was raped in the woman's bathroom, she says. Much of what she tells is similarly described by several other dome evacuees. A boy aged seven was also raped by two men. (Mr Allen says the rapist was chased down by other men and beaten before being handed over to the soldiers. He claims they also beat him and then threw him from a terrace outside the Superdome to the asphalt, killing him.)
"There was babies born and put in the garbage," Ms Farrell continues. Apparently, someone else found one infant alive and took it to the small clinic they had inside. Almost everyone talks of gunshots in the night, including one shooting of a National Guard soldier. Ms Farrell says the soldier died, others spoke of him being wounded in the leg and surviving. Meanwhile, she adds, a black-market trade flourished in marijuana cigarettes, crack cocaine, guns and alcohol, in plain view of the authorities. Men were flashing their penises at the women, who dared only go to the bathroom in groups of five. When the bathrooms became so foul that going into them was impossible, people began squatting down just anywhere to relieve themselves. "Human beings don't live like that, people in the street don't live like that," she says.
All this weekend, federal officials will interview the heads of each family group in the Astrodome to give them money and some guidance on what to do next. The same process was getting under way at other evacuee centers here in Houston and in several other cities across Texas, including Dallas and San Antonio, and in other southern states. It's everyone's hope that as many people as possible here will somehow find the means to get alternative shelter, maybe in cheap apartments or with relatives in Texas. Some will end up staying in Texas, others will eventually return to Louisiana. Yesterday, announcements would occasionally come over the loudspeakers or on the electronic message boards that used to carry sporting results with the good news for some that friends or family had arrived to pick them up.
But it won't be so easy for most of the souls in here. Many of them are exhausted and quite obviously traumatized by their experiences over the days since Hurricane Katrina hit. "I'm not moving," Ms Benson says flatly. "This is going to be my home. My home for me and my kids." She just prays first that the three children who are missing can be found and brought to her here.
VOICES FROM THE STORM
"None of us have any place to go."
Julie Paul, 57, in a poor area last Sunday, watching New Orleans empty.
"The water's rising pretty fast. I got a hammer and an axe and a crowbar, but I'm holding off on breaking through the roof until the last minute. Tell someone to come get me please. I want to live."
Chris Robinson, Monday, calling from New Orleans.
"There are lots of homes through here worth a million dollars. At least they were yesterday."
Fred Wright, surveying Mobile's Eastern Shore
"I don't treat my dog like that. I buried my dog. You can do everything for other countries but you can't do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military but you can't get them down here."
Daniel Edwards, pointing at a dead woman parked in a wheelchair outside the convention center
"I do think the nation would be responding differently if they were white elderly and white babies actually dying on the street and being covered with newspapers and shrouds and being left there."
David Billings of anti-racist organization, The People's Institute.
"I don't want to see no more water unless I'm taking a bath."
Anona Freeman,before being air-lifted out.
© Copyright 2005 lndependent/UK