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Most officers working on adrenaline, little else

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Most officers working on adrenaline, little else

'I told them that the worst is yet to come'

By Michael Perlstein
Staff writer

When gunshots panicked an already desperate crowd of evacuees inside the nearly pitch-black Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, several New Orleans police officers instinctively pulled their guns and ran toward the pops. Just as quickly, they realized their weapons were useless amid the clusters of bedraggled families.

But they weaved their way toward the muzzle flash anyway, Superintendent Eddie Compass said, shining flashlights, groping with their hands, guided toward the shooter by evacuees pulling on their pants legs. When they got a bead on the gunman, they rushed to disarm him, despite the chance of facing more deadly fire.

Throughout the inundated city, what remained of the New Orleans Police Department was transformed into a virtual militia operation, Compass and other commanders said, forcing officers to freelance without radios, supplies or clear orders. Dozens of officers turned in their badges or fled without a word.

Some joined in with looters and marauders, plunging an already jittery situation into moments of complete societal breakdown.

"These events do two things: they show your strengths and they expose your weaknesses. We had both," Compass said.

But according to Compass, the majority of the 1,700-person force held its ground, figuring out ways to save lives and restore order, working to save the city despite, in many cases, becoming victims themselves.

"The bulk of this police department stood intact," Compass said in an interview, tears streaming down his face. "We fought the most unbelievable war imaginable and we survived . . . Some officers lost their houses and they're still out there. Some officers lost family members and they're still out there."

Like every other city, state and federal agency, the police department was almost instantly overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina, Compass said. With the city plunged into a near-total communications blackout, the police radio system was reduced to walkietalkies among small squads.

As much as possible, the squads began organizing themselves at key points around the city, Compass said. The SWAT team tried to quell looting, track down armed gangs and restore order. The vice squad took over the search-and-rescue boat patrols. District patrol officers set up satellite evacuation points as refugees began streaming out of flooded neighborhoods. Compass bounced between the City Hall emergency command post, the law enforcement staging area at Harrah's Casino and the field.

At one point, there was a rumor that Compass had fled to Baton Rouge. He said the bad information circulated because his car was seen heading to the Capitol, carrying his eight-months-pregnant wife when she went into distress.

"I've been rolling on calls, backing people up on the ground, fighting off people with my bare hands," he said.

Police protocol was tossed out the window. The force's usual show of crisp white and blue uniforms was largely supplanted by t-shirts, jeans, bandanas, hip-waders, shirts with the sleeves torn off. The department's polished and immaculately groomed spokesman, Capt. Marlon Defillo, armed himself with a pistol in one hand and an semiautomatic shotgun in the other.

More than a dozen 2nd District officers worked shifts at Napoleon and St. Charles avenues, where droves of people were funneled toward them in canoes, rescue boats and, in many cases, after wading through neck-high water, Lt. Eddie Selby said.

Other than a caravan of National Guard trucks that arrived for the mass evacuation of Memorial Medical Center on Wednesday, Selby said, his officers had no transportation for evacuees.

To solve the budding crisis, officers commandeered any vehicles they could find to get people to the Superdome and Convention Center refuge points. A yellow De La Salle High school bus. An Audubon Zoo van. A flatbed truck donated by a volunteer.

On Friday, two lines formed at the pickup point: one for people in medical distress, another for evacuees heading to larger evacuation points. In a line of people headed for the convention center, a woman with a Wal-Mart cart pushed her way to the De La Salle bus.

Through a bus window, she handed up a bag of tampons, boxes of crayons and pencils for her kids, and a brand-new looted 17-inch flat screen television.

The scene was orderly, the officers professional, but Selby said his people were "operating on pure adrenaline."

"We try to break them into 12- hour shifts, but then something happens and we have to call them back," Selby said. "A lot of us are working on three, four hours sleep. We moved about 1,000 people a day the first three days."

Officer Darryl Albert said a handful of volunteers have remained at the intersection throughout the crisis, setting up a cluster of chairs and couches in the street so they could catch moments of rest.

"You see those volunteers loading people up over there?" Albert asked. "Those people are there when we leave at night and here when we get here in the morning. That man doesn't have to be here. If people like that are going to be out here, there is no way I can leave."

Compass and other commanders said the officers grew increasingly frustrated as the days passed without any substantial backup. Officers were running around-the-clock on wideeyed adrenaline, he said, but the lack of basic items like food, water and clean clothes began to take a toll.

"We were running low on everything," he said. "We fought a battle in knee-deep water with no radios. My people were getting shot at, walking into firefighters in the dark. I don't know what the feds were doing, what the military was doing, but every one of my deputy chiefs stayed. Every one of my commanders stayed."

Compass said he almost reached a personal breaking point when he couldn't find the right channels to secure two Blackhawk helicopters parked for several days at the Superdome heliport.

"I called (Jefferson Parish) Harry Lee and he had a Blackhawk on its way from Knoxville, Tennessee, within an hour."

As the city plunged deeper into crisis with each day, officers used common sense to alter their boundaries of legal behavior. What passed for looting on the day after the storm hit was accepted as lifesaving foraging by week's end. Some officers joined in grabbing supplies from breached stores, carrying off socks, T-shirts, food and other essentials.

With National Guard and other military troops now rolling into the city, the beleaguered NOPD is anticipating an infusion of food, water and generator power, along with badly needed reinforcements so officers can take a break.

But Capt. Timothy Bayard, the narcotics and vice commander now heading the boat rescue operation, said he has warned his officers that the work could be harder before it gets easier. Once rescuers pluck everyone from rooftops and attics, Bayard said, his mission will shift to coordinating the recovery of bodies.

"I have a lot of young officers and I told them that the worst is yet to come. Bodies are going to pop up out of nowhere. The stench will be overwhelming. Bloated bodies are going to pop like balloons. The skin's going to tear off as soon as you grab it. You're going to have nothing but bones in your hand. We'll have to kill dogs and cats because of rabies. Hell, they might find people they know. But you've got to keep going back in."
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