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Marching through madness (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday September 6, 2005 12:35PM; Updated: Tuesday September 6, 2005 1:30PM
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Verrett said he and the other men at the shelter served as a makeshift police force, attempting to ensure that the elderly and kids were cared for first. "We had some bad things happen," he said. Then Verrett, somewhat remarkably, told of a prominent New Orleans resident who "opened her house, gave us all the food and water. To show she supported us she came over to the shelter and slept among us, on the roof. But then a couple of guys got carried away." Those men, Verrett said, raped the woman in the middle of the night, one of at least two sexual assaults that he said happened there over the course of the week.

"We got rid of them the next day," Verrett said. "We weren't having that. The other men and I had to be soldiers and join together to protect our women. We spliced the battery wires and set up lights where the women were sleeping so it wouldn't happen again."

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We said our good-byes, and then McAllister and I walked outside to the trash-filled road outside the terminal. We weren't sure if Verrett's story had been entirely true -- and of course we prayed especially that the last part wasn't -- but neither of us doubted that he'd experienced something far more hellish than either of us could ever have imagined. We walked farther along the road and watched evacuees disembarking from military helicopters, walking slowly along the tarmac while carrying belongings in white, plastic trash bags. "Did you see the movie Hotel Rwanda?" McAllister asked. "That's what this looks like."

Soon we were downtown, standing atop Interstate 10 at a major downtown intersection: Canal St. and Claiborne Ave., each of which was flooded with several feet of water for as far as the eye could see. We had conversations with numerous survivors who expressed no interest in leaving, including an old man living in a broken-down Greyhound bus parked on the interstate. Two of the Salvation Army officials and McAllister entered the bus to implore the man to leave, but he refused. "I'm waiting here for my family to get back," he said. "I ain't going anywhere without them."

Nearly 72 hours earlier I'd arrived in Oakland to watch the Saints, who'd shipped out to the Bay Area before the hurricane hit, go through the motions in last Thursday night's preseason finale, which they lost to the Raiders by a 13-6 score. Coach Jim Haslett then gave his players until 11 p.m. Sunday to tend to their affairs before reporting to the team's new headquarters at a San Antonio hotel. In an effort to capture the madness of the moment I flew to Houston, where on Saturday morning I accompanied wideout Joe Horn on a three-hour visit with evacuees at the Astrodome. Then I caught a flight to Jackson and hooked up with McAllister and fellow running back Fred McAfee, who visited shelters in that area, dropping off big-screen TVs and DVD players they'd purchased and casually co-mingling with their displaced brethren.

On Sunday morning McAllister and I -- along with photographer Bill Baptist and Salvation Army Major Mark Woodcock, public relations whiz Mark Jones and associate director of development Caeser Grantham -- hopped into a green Chevy Astro van and headed into the heart of the devastation.

Here are some of my experiences and recollections from a heartrending weekend I'll never forget:

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