She's telling a polite lie. Later, at 2 p.m., an armored vehicle rumbles down the street, its loudspeaker ordering people to line up. But Willie Mae, 67, is unable. Since fleeing her retirement home before the hurricane Monday, being rescued from rising waters at her daughter Terri's apartment on Tuesday, and being shuttled first to City Hall and now to the Convention Center via city bus, she's run out of her diabetes and hypertension medication. She's exhausted, and her feet are in too much pain to budge.
At 3 p.m. Arkansas National Guard troops armed with M-4 assault rifles begin the first organized food and water distribution since hurricane survivors began arriving here Monday. At the head of the line that begins in the parking lot and stretches along the front of the giant convention building are the young and the strong, many of whom carry their ration to older relatives or children, then get back in line. That's what Willie Mae's daughter Dana, 42, does several times, bringing supplies first for her own family and then for other people.
"Dana should've been a nun," her brother Kenneth Clark says. "She doesn't care anything about herself." Watching her in action, it's little wonder that when I arrived here earlier today, Dana was passed out from exhaustion on the ground while her partner, Larry Rodriguez, helplessly fanned her and dripped water on her forehead.
"Those people over there, I don't know who's going to do for them," says Willie Mae. Across Julia Street is a motley collection of the disabled, the aged, and the sick. They slouch in wheelchairs or lie collapsed and panting on the pavement. "Thank God my family is with me," she says.
I walk over to a police officer in an SUV. Frank Rizzuto, of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) is unshaven, and his eyes are so bloodshot they hurt to look at. Why, I ask, aren't the police helping the sick or taking them to hospitals? I expect a hostile reply, but there's only exhaustion.
"Most of our assets are directed at rescue—getting people off roofs and out of water," he says. "There's not enough people in the city to do rescue and feed and house and look after people." Rizzuto shakes his head. He's supposed to be patrolling the streets, but he doesn't have enough gas to drive around. "I wish I could help," he says. "I'm stuck here too."
Late in the afternoon, someone decides the massive building has grown too filthy and has been the scene of too much mayhem and violence. Police move anyone left inside out to the street and barricade the doors.
As night begins to fall, fear seems to seep out of the stagnant water filling the city. The thousands trapped here on dry ground edge closer together. Families who will spend the night sitting in chairs hauled out of ruined bars and restaurants huddle around young women and children as the light fades. Many say nighttime is when the rapes, assaults, and murders have been happening. It's said that not all among the growing collection of corpses in the massive convention building are dead of disease or dehydration.