Dirty, fearful and exhausted, they pressed their faces against the metal gates, begging and pleading for the chance to board a bus and get away from a refuge that had become a nightmare.
After five days in the stinking, crowded and sweltering confines of the New Orleans Superdome, the thousands of people who emerged formed a slow-moving tide of desperation looking for escape and relief.
The Superdome was meant to be a hurricane refuge, but those who sought shelter there described a lawless "concentration camp" where two children were reportedly raped and other refugees terrorized by rioters.
A SLOW MOVING TIDE OF DESPERATION
Thousands still wait to be evacuated from the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, September 2, 2005, 5 days after Hurricane Katrina.. REUTERS//David J. Phillip/Pool
Around 40 National Guard, armed with assault rifles, guarded the door to a shopping mall through which the packed crowds were being slowly filtered to buses waiting in ankle-deep flood waters outside.
"Make a hole!" one guardsman shouted, as he carried the limp and sweaty body of a woman -- one of many who collapsed from dehydration and exhaustion.
People held children and dogs over their heads to keep them from getting crushed, as babies were passed forward into the waiting arms of guardsmen who cradled them and fed them water.
Those lucky enough to get out told tales of rapes, child molestations, shootings, a man who jumped off the roof and a fire that broke out in the giant sport arena where up to 20,000 people had taken shelter from Hurricane Katrina.
The floors of the stadium were soaked from the rain that seeped in during the storm after part of the roof collapsed, and a pervading stench testifid to the overflowing toilets that had forced people to relieve themselves in hallways and stairwells.
"The odor from that place would knock you off your feet," said Lorraine Banks as she made her way past the dozens of police officers and soldiers trying to keeping order and handing out water in the shopping mall.
"They had bowel movements on the floor this high," the 53-year-old nurse said, as she gestured to her knee.
One 13-year veteran of the New Orleans police force said he and other officers who had been at the Superdome since Sunday were outraged at what they saw as a lack of preparation that allowed the situation in the covered stadium to deteriorate so badly and so quickly.
"This city knew something like this would happen a long time ago. They did nothing to prepare for this. They just rolled the dice and hoped for the best," said the officer who asked not to be identified.
"People were raped in there. People were killed in there. We had multiple riots," he said, adding there was no way to police the mass of up to 20,000 people suddenly thrown together in such a confined space and such horrific conditions.
"You can't be trapped in there for so long without going crazy. People were locked in the dome like prisoners," he said. "There was no ventilation. We had 80-, 90-year-old people who needed medication and couldn't get it."
According to Baron Duncan, the nights inside the arena were the worst, with the pitch darkness and debilitating humidity accentuating the rank smell from backed up toilets.
"The stench was unbearable. We were treated like animals," Duncan said. "There was shooting ... our lives were in danger. A seven-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy got raped."
Medics brought the worst cases out to a cordoned-off hallway for treatment before they were loaded onto the buses.
Latanya Howard, 34, was using a piece of cardboard to fan a woman who had collapsed against a wall.
"People have been passing out left and right and we had limited medical supplies," she said, describing the scene inside the arena. "Then we come out and they talk to us like dogs. No wonder they were fighting."
The evacuation of the Superdome began late Wednesday for those with serious health problems. Officials would not estimate how long it would take to empty the arena completely.
"People are still walking in here as fast as we can get them out," said Lieutenant Colonel Scott Elliot of the Texas National Guard.
The Superdome was opened Sunday as a refuge of last resort. After the flooding, thousands more came or were brought there in hopes of making it onto the first buses out of the city.
Maintaining order had been difficult, Elliot said as he surveyed the swarm of angry, shouting people pressing up against the barricades between the shopping mall and the buses.
Despite one guardsman being shot in the leg, he said the general feeling among the troops was that they were happy to be able to help.
"This is the most important thing they've ever done," Elliot said. "I just got back from Iraq last month. It's nothing like this. These are our people."
Much of the frustration voiced by the evacuees concerned the lack of information. People were prevented from leaving the arena because of the flooding and were desperate for news of what had happened to their friends, neighbors, family members and homes.
One woman, Judy Smith, sat sobbing in a chair in the mall with her four grandchildren sitting on the floor next to her.
"I've lost my children," Smith sobbed. "You've got to find my daughter, Ashley Smith .... You've got to tell her her babies are alright. One almost drowned but we saved him."
Many blamed the officials for failing to give them any updates on the situation.
"We didn't have anyone telling us anything," said Rosemary Atkins, 60, as she waited with her grandson for her daughter and other grandson to make their way through the barricades.
"We kept asking the guards (what was going on) and they said they didn't know."
Norma Blanco Johnson, waiting for a bus with her daughter and infant grandaughter, said her main concern was her three sons, who she hadn't seen since before the hurricane hit.
"I don't know what happened to them," Johnson said, adding that her anxiety and fear had only been multiplied by the experience of sheltering in the Superdome.
"This was no way to treat a human being. I lost everything and then I went through hell. I have no place left. I have nowhere to go and all I have are these," she said, pointing to her soiled clothes.
Audrey Jordan vented her anger at New Orleans officials, saying they had known for years that a hurricane of Katrina's intensity could cause a breach in the low-lying city's water defences.
"They wanted to pay millions of dollars to rebuild a stadium, but they couldn't even fix the levee," Jordan said.
"We were treated like this was a concentration camp," she said of the Superdome. "One man couldn't take it. He jumped over the railing and died."
© Copyright 2005 Agence France Presse