Recalling days of despair in the Superdome


The first time Paul Harris was in the Louisiana Superdome, he was living side by side with more than 20,000 people he has found impossible to forget.

It was during Hurricane Katrina, and everybody who was nobody in New Orleans was there: elderly people so frail they could barely walk, mothers with sweaty babies on each arm, budget tourists whose hotels had closed, down-and-out citizens who didn’t have cars — people with no prayer of getting out of town and no shelter but the massive, 27-story stadium that became, for six awful days, a sweltering cesspool of human misery.

Harris, a former San Diego County probation officer on vacation in the Big Easy when the storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005, has wondered what happened to the people with whom he spent the most intense days of his life. He’s been in e-mail contact with several and has flown to New Orleans a few times to watch the progress of the Superdome’s $320-million renovation.

On Sunday, Katrina’s fifth anniversary, Harris organized a reunion of Superdome survivors. He printed up flyers, advertised it on the local paper’s events calendar, flagged it on his own website. He arrived shortly before noon, waiting expectantly and a little nervously.

No one came.

For the better part of an hour, Harris stood in the alternate drizzle and downpour on the balcony outside the dome, squinting at the occasional curious passerby, giving an interview to a lone documentary film crew, and occasionally throwing his head back to gaze up at the metal behemoth that remains one of New Orleans’ most beloved, and notorious, landmarks.

He put his fliers back in his folder so they wouldn’t get wet.

“When you think about it, why would somebody want to come back? I guess most people would want to forget,” said Harris, 54, who lives in Arkansas now. “But for me, I guess it’s a way of facing my demons.”

The fact that no one came could have a less metaphysical explanation, suggests Steven Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama who has studied Katrina’s lingering effects: Among the thousands of impoverished, waylaid and desperate people at the Superdome, he said, most were evacuated from the city and may not have returned.

“I would wonder how many of those people are even still living. There were many, many elderly,” he said. “And many of the people that were there got bused out to New Orleans International Airport and were put on planes, not even knowing very accurately where they were going.”

In the Lower 9th Ward, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods and one of the poorest, only 25% of former residents have returned.

“And I would also imagine that it was an incredibly traumatic six days in the Superdome, and I would think that to some degree, many people would avoid going back there as a coping mechanism,” he said. “Because to reenter on the anniversary would bring a lot of traumatic memories flooding back.”

For Harris, the past five years have been little but memories. So ubiquitous were the scenes in his mind that he recently chronicled them in a book, “Diary From the Dome: Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina.”

Six people died there: One man threw himself from an upper seating area, one person succumbed to a drug overdose, and four others died of natural causes. Police thwarted an attempted rape.

Harris remembers the stench of backed-up toilets, children sleeping on cardboard soaked with urine and feces, 90-degree heat and oppressive humidity after part of the roof blew off and the electricity failed.

What he found fascinating, and what he wanted to chronicle in his book and talk over with fellow survivors, was the way in which fear, heat and the lack of any real information created rumors — stories flew through the overheated crowd and gained currency as they traveled, a deadly round of Telephone on a mass scale.

“We kept hearing stories that the buses were coming, the buses were coming. Of course they didn’t come. And that’s what led to the lack of trust that made it seem like anything might be true,” he said.

“First, we heard that there were all these gang members roaming around with knives and chains. There was a rumor that a black guy had raped a young white girl, around 7 or 8. Then it switched to a white guy raping two young black girls, and that really increased the tension.”

Harris, who was sitting in Section 113 with foreign tourists, said several Australians began fashioning weapons out of chair legs and other handy implements and prepared for what they were convinced would be a race war. Harris feared his fellow tourists might fire the first shot.

“The reality was that people were getting along very well. There were people breaking into vending machines, people trying to get into the kitchen to get ice, but nothing really serious,” he said.

Harris and about 100 of his fellow Section 113 residents were quietly evacuated after the third day to the adjoining sports arena, and finally to the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where the mayor was ensconced.

“What we had in common was that we were all tourists,” he said. “We were told it was going to be groups of 10 at a time. ‘Do not smile,’ they told us. If anybody suspects we’re getting special treatment, riots could erupt. We felt a little guilty getting out early, but nobody was willing to trade their place with anybody else.”

After waiting an hour Sunday, Harris collected his fliers and made his way down the long pedestrian ramp outside the dome to the sidewalk. There, he encountered Freddie Nero, 63.

“Where’s the reunion?” Nero asked.

“Here,” Harris said. “I guess we were neighbors.”

The two men — Harris slight, neatly groomed, white and soft-spoken; Nero hefty, black, expansive and in need of a shave — talked for a few minutes on the sidewalk, a conversation that would be almost impossible to imagine anywhere except in front of the Louisiana Superdome, in the rain.

“It got pretty bad,” Nero said, shaking his head.

“You never expect things to be like that,” Nero said. “But it did happen. Now, I don’t think anything like that could happen again, could it? Do you think something like that could happen again?”

He didn’t seem to expect an answer. Harris reached for Nero’s hand, shook it, and headed for his car.