Saturday, September 03, 2005

Chaos In New Orleans: A Student Teacher's Ordeal

A group of young women from Scotland, a student teacher among them, survived Katrina's fury only to be threatened by armed thugs while trapped in their French Quarter hotel:
Trainee teacher Cherie Smith, 23, from Paisley, Renfrewshire, described how gun-wielding locals became increasingly desperate for food and water in the catastrophic aftermath of the hurricane.

Smith and her friends Dawn Plunkett and Natalie Train, both from Edinburgh, only escaped the chaos and devastation in the city after a treacherous 30-hour road journey through flooded and blocked roads.

The arts and drama graduate finally returned yesterday afternoon for a reunion with her parents Matt, 46, and Lesley, 43, at Glasgow Airport.

Only a week earlier she had arrived in New Orleans with her friends, unaware of the storm that was about to hit.

The three young women and another friend, Anwara Uddin, 27, from London, had just finished a 10-week stint working as care assistants for children at Camp America in New York. They were looking forward to a holiday in New Orleans' famous French quarter, and also excursions into the swamps.

But within a few hours of landing they learned that the powerful hurricane was on course for the city.

The group were forced to shelter at the Baronne Plaza hotel after trying to flee - only to find all planes and trains cancelled. All the hire cars in the city were already taken.

For nine hours last Sunday Smith - who should have been celebrating her birthday - sheltered in a windowless room in the hotel as Katrina passed through. In the following days the group began to fear for their lives as fights broke out between locals who had also taken shelter in the downtown hotel.

A Jewish missionary couple working there warned the tourists to be on their guard, as food, water, and even candles became valuable commodities in the shattered community.

As the temperature soared to above 40°C, Smith and her friends hid from gun-toting vigilantes on the hotel roof, surviving on meagre rations of stale sandwiches and cold pizza. Their only lifeline with the world was a radio. They tried to attract rescuers' attention with 'Help' signs fashioned from bedsheets, and by reflecting sunlight towards passing helicopters with a small mirror.

But as the situation became increasingly fraught within the hotel, the Jewish couple managed to drive the women out through the flooded roads in a small lorry, after organising the evacuation of the other 250 guests in boats they secured from the Superdome stadium, which was under siege.

Smith and her friends heard of the reports of the rapes at the stadium as they fled the city on Wednesday.

Smith said: "The Jewish couple warned us there were crazy people in the hotel. Some of them had guns. Others were openly taking and selling drugs.

"We felt uncomfortable staying in our room. We heard arguments and fights. People were looting everywhere.

"Before the hurricane hit we had helped the staff make up sandwiches, but there was only enough for one half piece for every person.

"The staff kept going to the Superdome but the National Guard said they couldn't help. I later heard about the rapes and was relieved we were not evacuated there.

"We felt very lost. We didn't know what was going on."

The group, and another couple from New York, were driven to Baton Rouge. Plunkett and Train left the party there to meet relatives and are still to return to Scotland.

Smith continued her journey in the lorry with the Jewish couple to Atlanta, after learning there were no flights available elsewhere, and was evacuated home with the help of Camp America.
Get additional details on this story (from another source) right here.

This is just one of thousands of individual stories of people who survived what might very well be America's worst natural disaster since the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which killed approximately 8000 people.
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