Superdome Evacuation Halted Amid Gunfire

Orleans Parish prisoners are evacuated from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005 in New Orleans.

9-1-05 - The evacuation of the Superdome was temporarily disrupted Thursday after a shot was reported fired at a military helicopter. No injuries were immediately reported.

An air ambulance service official said that helicopter transfers of the sick and injured were suspended, but the National Guard said Thursday that able-bodied evacuees were still being moved by bus to Houston's Astrodome.

Authorities had said Wednesday that some 25,000 people who had been in the Superdome since Sunday would be taken to the Astrodome.

But with the disruptions, the scene at the Superdome became increasingly chaotic, with thousands of people rushing from nearby hotels and other buildings, hoping to climb onto the buses taking evacuees from the arena. Paramedics became increasingly alarmed by the sight of people with guns.

"We won't go into the Superdome landing zone until security is restored," said Richard Zuschlag, president and CEO of Acadian Ambulance Service, which is running the evacuation of the sick and injured at the Superdome.

"We are now concentrating on the roofs of hospitals."

Thursday morning, a seething sea of tense, unhappy, people packed shoulder-to-shoulder up to the barricades where heavily armed National Guardsmen stood.

Lt. Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard said other evacuations were continuing and were not affected by trash fires burning outside the Superdome. Law enforcement officers will ride with the school buses, he said.

"At the Superdome, we have a report that one shot was fired at a Chinook helicopter," Schneider said, adding that the Chinook is "an extremely large aircraft."

Laura Brown, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman in Washington, said she had no such report.

"We're controlling every single aircraft in that airspace and none of them reported being fired on," she said, adding that the FAA was in contact with the military as well as civilian aircraft.

Earlier Thursday, the first busload of survivors had arrived at the Houston Astrodome, where air conditioning, cots, food and showers awaited them.

"We are going to do everything we can to make people comfortable," Red Cross spokeswoman Margaret O'Brien-Molina said. "Places have to be found for these people. Many of these people may never be able to rebuild."

Astrodome officials said they would accept only the 25,000 people stranded at the Superdome _ a rule that was tested when a school bus arrived from New Orleans filled with families with children seeking shelter.

At first, Astrodome officials said the refugees couldn't come in, but then allowed them to enter for food and water. Another school bus was also allowed in.

The Astrodome is far from a hotel, but it was a step above the dank, sweltering Superdome, where the floodwaters were rising, the air conditioning was out, the ceiling leaked, trash piled up and toilets were broken.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said the 40-year-old Astrodome is "not suited well" for such a large crowd long-term, but officials are prepared to house the displaced as long as possible. New Orleans officials said residents may not be able to return for months.

The Astrodome's schedule has been cleared through December. The dome is used on occasion for corporate parties and hospitality events, but hasn't been used for professional sports in years.

In New Orleans, the refugees had lined up for the first buses, some inching along in wheelchairs, some carrying babies. Almost everyone carried a plastic bag or bundled bedspread holding the few possessions they had left. Many had no idea where they were heading.

"We tried to find out. We're pretty much adrift right now," said Cyril Ellisworth, 46. "We're pretty much adrift in life. They tell us to line up and go, and we just line up and go."

The Astrodome's new residents will be issued passes that will let them leave and return as they please, something that wasn't permitted in New Orleans. Organizers also plan to find ways to help the refugees contact relatives.