Sept. 4, 2005 – As thousands of New Orleans residents -- the vast majority of them poor and black -- waited for days in squalid and nightmarish conditions for rescue, authorities prioritized tourists and hotel guests for evacuation.
- Katrina Survivors Face Cops, Gougers, Scams, â€˜Gangsâ€™ (Sep 1, 2005)
At the cityâ€™s Superdome, which housed tens of thousands of people since before Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast Monday, people have been waiting for days to board buses taking refugees to more permanent and hospitable shelter in other cities. Conditions rapidly deteriorated in the stadium, which city authorities had opened and designated a "shelter of last resort" just hours before the storm struck.
With no electricity, plumbing, food or water, crowds had been forced to fend for themselves against hunger, thirst, sickness and violence.
On Friday, with thousands of the Superdomeâ€™s inhabitants still waiting for evacuation by bus, the National Guard ushered several hundred tourists and Hyatt hotel employees to the head of the line. The group had been holed up in the Hyatt in relatively humane conditions, at least compared to those at the Superdome. According to news reports, the group was moved from the Hyatt to make room for rescue workers and government officials, but instead of having to wait their turn in line to evacuate the city, the Hyatt guests and employees were provided transportation immediately.
"How does this work?" asked Howard Blue, who had been waiting in line to evacuate, the Associated Press reported Friday night. "They [are] clean, they are dry, they get out ahead of us?" According to the AP, National Guard soldiers prevented Blue and others from boarding buses while they assisted the "well-dressed" tourists with their bags and whisked them out of town.
In a press release, Hyatt confirmed that guest who had remained there during and after the hurricane had been relatively well provided for. "The approximately 900 guests that remained on the premises following Katrina's powerful blow -- primarily hotel staff and their families, officials, and those in emergency-related roles -- were safely relocated to the hotel's well-sheltered ballroom, exhibit hall areas and serviceable guest rooms where they were kept comfortable following the hurricane," reads the release. "A convoy of food and supplies provided by Hyatt hotels in Atlanta and Houston arrived at Hyatt Regency New Orleans on Wednesday of this week."
Food and supplies did not arrive at the Superdome until Friday night.
Also on Friday, a group of tourists were reportedly pre-emptively escorted by the National Guard out of the Superdome. A handful of Australians, who were among those provided with priority evacuation from the stadium, detailed their ordeal in interviews the Australian newspaper The Age.
"It was somewhere between a disaster area full of refugees and a jail," said Anthony Hopes. "We knew we had to stick together. We were a minority group inside a stadium with 25,000 people."
Lisa van Grinsven told The Age, "We put all our luggage in the middle and the girls sat in the middle with the boys around the outside."
Hopes, van Grinsven and other tourists who were evacuated with them related the now-familiar story of conditions at the Superdome endured by all who sought refuge there: overflowing toilets, disgusting and unsanitary living conditions, desperation, sickness and death, lack of food, water and other basic necessities and sounds of violence and terror in the night.
Jamie Trout, who was among a group of British tourists, told the BBC that they were evacuated because of racial tension. "There was a lot of heat from the people in there, people shouting racial abuse about us being white," he said.
But rescuers gave the tourists priority over others who were isolated and alone, elderly and infirmed, infants and people with special needs.
When New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city the day before the hurricane struck, he exempted "essential personnel of operating hotels and their patrons" along with transportation and utility workers, hospital staff and their patients, law enforcement and prisoners.
Many tourists with the means to escape the storm-targeted city did not do so ahead of the storm. Meanwhile, New Orleans residents without means of transportation or money to pay for places to stay in other cities lacked choice in the matter: they could not evacuate.
An estimated 100,000 people in New Orleans were without personal transportation or were too sick or elderly to leave on their own, according to Brian Wolshon, who served as a consultant on the state's evacuation plan, in an interview with the New York Times. Over two-thirds of the cityâ€™s residents are black, and nearly 30 percent live below the poverty level.