Forty-four troops pressed together in their truck, swaying as one at every bump and turn like reeds in a river.
As they plunged into the dark water engulfing the business district of New Orleans, their wake pushed the body of a woman onto the steps of the Superdome. The floodwater had ripped her pants down to her knees. She was facedown in the muck, a red ribbon still tied neatly around her graying hair.
The troops, members of an elite Special Response Team from the Louisiana Army National Guard, were the first convoy out of what was rapidly becoming a massive military staging ground.
Their mission, simply, is to turn New Orleans into a police state -- to “regain the city,” 1st Sgt. John Jewell said.
The truck lurched through the streets, past buildings burning unabated and MPs in gun turrets. When they stopped to gear up for their arrival at the New Orleans Convention Center, where more than 15,000 people had been living in squalor since Katrina, these words echoed -- for the first time, one would imagine -- through the intersection of Poydras Avenue and Carondelet Street: “Lock and load!”
“Sixteen in the clip!” one Guardsman shouted, a common refrain used to indicate that rifles are fully loaded.
But when they arrived, they did not find marauding mobs. They did not come under fire. They found people who had lost everything in the storm and, since then, their dignity.
The troops were part of the Superdome team that came to town before the hurricane. For days, they had been cut off from news reports, sleeping and working among the refugees and the vicious rumor mill at the Superdome.
Their Superdome duties left them with a terrible image of the city. They knew that out on the streets, a police officer had been shot in the head, that looting was widespread, that snipers were taking shots even at boaters trying to rescue victims from rooftops and attics.
Now assigned to patrol the streets, they headed for the New Orleans Convention Center, in the city’s central business district. Many had wads of tobacco in their bottom lip and emitted long, dense streams of spittle into the streets below.
Their mission was to establish a command post at the center, which officials have increasingly turned their attention to, particularly as the evacuation of the Superdome nears its end. They would then build a staging area to bring in food and water. Finally, they would send in teams to seize control of a massive and lawless facility.
The troops braced for the worst.
“Is this the calm before the storm?” one asked as they rolled through the streets.
“There are a lot of gangs out here in the water,” said Sgt. 1st Class Maris Pichon, a 26-year veteran of the National Guard who served in Afghanistan last year. “This is not going to be a cakewalk.”
Two trucks pulled beside them, one carrying water and one a massive pile of ready-to-eat military meals in boxes.
“Tell me they’re not letting the food go in before the troops,” one Guardsman said.
“That’s called bait,” another said.
They pulled into a parking lot next to the convention center in full battle mode. They spilled over the sides of the truck, formed a tight circle and began walking outward, stepping over the detritus of the refugees. Dirty underwear. A CD that included the song “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
A troop carrier rolled over an empty water bottle, popping it like a balloon. The troops yanked their weapons to a firing position before realizing what it was.
“No civilians in this parking lot!” a sergeant shouted. “Hold your perimeter!”
No one came at them but a nurse. She was wearing a T-shirt that read “I love New Orleans.” She ran down a broken escalator, then held her hands in the air when she saw the guns.
“We have sick kids up here!” she shouted. “We have dehydrated kids! One kid with sickle cell!”
Another storm victim, Cory Williams, 50, a respiratory therapist spending his third day at the convention center, greeted the troops as they came up the stairs.
He had ridden out the storm at his 9th Ward house. On Tuesday morning, when the flooding began in earnest, 6 feet of water came inside in five minutes, he said. He tried to stay on top of a car in the garage but the water continued to rise, so he made a run for it, dragging several neighbors out behind him on an inflatable raft as he swam, then waded, through the water.
He made it several miles west, toward downtown and higher ground, then watched police stop at gunpoint a Ryder van that had been hot-wired by thieves. The officers told the men inside that they had to stop looting and must try to get people out of the neighborhoods, that people were dying.
“Believe it or not, those dudes got the message,” Williams said.
The thieves began ferrying people out of the devastated neighborhoods to the east. The police had deputized looters.
“They had to,” Williams said. “There was no other way to get people out.”
The thieves dropped him off at the convention center, where he stayed until the troops arrived.
Though there have been reports of shootings and several rapes, the crowd at the convention center does not appear to have degenerated into the kind of chaos and violence seen at the Superdome.
Physically, however, the masses at the center might have been in worse condition than those at the stadium, which was at least prepped as a storm shelter.
People at the convention center had received a single deposit of food and water, dropped from a helicopter, since Katrina’s strike. The drop caused a riot; Williams, an Army veteran, said he feared the people clambering onto the pallet of food as it neared the ground were going to pull the helicopter into the parking lot. The craft never returned.
Children slept on laps and on the ground. There was an elderly emphysema patient. A diabetic. The boy suffering from sickle cell anemia, his eyes puffy and his skin yellowish-brown.
The troops arrived Friday, ready for anything.
“You’ve got to do something,” said the nurse in the New Orleans T-shirt.
“We’ll get you some help as soon as some people get here,” Lt. James Magee said as the troops arrived. “OK?”
Inside, human waste covered the floor. An elderly woman tumbled out of her wheelchair and landed on the ground. Her housedress was soiled. A man had poured fruit punch into an industrial-size bottle of floor cleaner and was drinking it with a straw.
“If you kept a dog in an environment like this, they would arrest you for animal cruelty,” said Cindy Davis, 39, the nurse, who had been separated from her group while caring for a patient and stranded at the convention center three days ago. “It’s like a cesspool.”
Frankie Estes, 80, said she was glad to finally see the troops. It was a glimmer of hope. Friday night marked her fifth night sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the center.
“I haven’t had food or water for three days,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it.”
By Friday night, dinner had been served to a seemingly endless line of refugees. Helicopters had begun descending on the convention center, airlifting the most critically ill. The troops had found their mission. It just wasn’t what they thought it was going to be.