And a huge 'Thank You' to the US Millitary for looking out for our people!
ANdyOur terrifying ordeal
By Sean O'Neil and Joanna Bale
TWO words on the boarding pass that secured Will Nelson a club-class seat on a flight from Dallas to Gatwick tell everything about the last week of his summer in America.
Alongside the flight details is stamped: “Hurricane Evacuee”.
Mr Nelson, and other Britons returning from New Orleans yesterday, will keep the boarding passes as souvenirs of the most frightening experience of their lives, being trapped in the city’s Superdome stadium.
As the first Britons caught by Hurricane Katrina returned home, the US authorities said that all 240,000 residents of New Orleans would have to leave before it could be rebuilt.
The death toll is likely to run into thousands and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that 131 Britons were still unaccounted for. However it emphasised that many are likely to be safe and could have left the disaster area days ago.
During seemingly endless days and sleepless nights, the British survivors’ fear of the hurricane’s destructive force was transformed into terror of the other survivors.
Mr Nelson, 21, and Jane Wheeldon, 20, told The Times how they and some 50 other foreigners — many of them British backpackers — were ordered by the US Army to gather together to protect themselves from resentful locals.
“The army told us to stick in a group and for the women to sit in the middle with the men around the outside and to be ready to defend ourselves,” Mr Nelson, from Epsom, Surrey, said. “Their urgency scared us. I sat on the outside, really scared by this point, sitting waiting for God knows what. We waited and waited, I didn’t sleep. A lot of the girls had been groped.”
Miss Wheeldon, from Carmarthen, South Wales, said that being inside the Superdome was terrifying and that she had been sexually harassed.
“The atmosphere was extremely intimidating,” the Lancaster University student said. “People stared at us all the time and men would come up to me and stroke my stomach and bottom. They would also say horrible, suggestive things. The worst time came when there was a rumour that a white man had raped a black woman. We were scared that we would be raped, robbed, or both. People were arguing, fighting and being arrested all the time.”
The “internationals”, as the army labelled the stranded tourists, were among the few white people in the stadium. Marked out by their skin colour and unfamiliar accents, they were verbally abused, while their luggage made them targets for robbery.
Mr Nelson said that local people also noticed that they received preferential treatment from the guards who gave them ration packs and water to help them to avoid food queues.
Mr Nelson, who graduated from Loughborough University in June, said: “The queues for the rations got more and more crazy. People were desperate.
“The physical conditions were horrible. It was stiflingly hot, you were sweating constantly. The smell was awful, a mix of sweat, faeces, urine — just a horrible, horrible smell.
“When the water stopped and the toilets packed up, it just got worse and worse. I can still smell it; it makes me gag.”
Miss Wheeldon said: “The sights we saw you wouldn’t want anyone to see. The filth and smell were unbelievable.” The threat came from a minor-ity — mainly young men. “The majority of the people of New Orleans are absolutely lovely,” she said. “Some families were ready to give us their food even though they had nothing.”
One of the most dangerous periods came on Wednesday when the military decided that the internationals should be removed for their own safety.
Officers told them to organise themselves in groups of five and make their way to an exit. The leaders were given a blue wristband and made accountable for the others. Mr Nelson’s was still on his arm yesterday.
He said: “The people around us were suspicious and resentful. They asked where we were going and we lied. We said that we were going to sit somewhere else. I walked off, head down, tunnel vision, I didn’t stop to think. I felt guilty but there was also a tremendous sense of relief that I was getting out of there.”
The tourists were taken to an emergency medical centre where many volunteered to help. “There were very few medics and we were able to help with feeding people, carrying stretchers and just talking to people who had lost their whole lives,” said Mr Nelson. “That night we saw a soldier brought in from the dome who had been shot in the leg.”
The Britons were taken on to Dallas the following day, seeing for the first time the full devastation caused by the hurricane.
Mr Nelson said: “I knew I was going home eventually, I knew I had a family home to go to and I knew where my family was and that they were safe. I realised just how lucky I was compared to many of the people we had left behind.”
Mr Nelson had been working as a lifeguard with Camp America, which organised his flight home. But during nine hours in the air, he could not sleep. “I couldn’t wait to get home, to see my parents, my sisters and my friends and be back somewhere I knew I would be safe.”
At Gatwick, Mr Nelson and Miss Wheeldon had tearful reunions with their families. Other survivors are expected back in Britain today.
FOUR DAYS INSIDE
Will Nelson’s journal
Entering the Superdome:
“I was in a bit of a state and rang home to tell them what was happening . . . the electricity was set to go off.”
The storm hits:
“I began shaking as everyone around us was screaming and running up the stairs . . . I thought that the dome would flood and we would all die in it like a big fish bowl.”
“We heard stories of girls being raped and people getting stabbed . . . A few of us ventured up to the next level in desperate search of a toilet. It really was like walking through a neighbourhood, all the different camps. We kept our eyes to the ground.”
The Army advises ‘internationals’ to sit together:
“Their urgency scared us senseless.”
The ‘internationals’ are moved out of the dome:
“As we walked out the locals shouted insults at us and began causing trouble. I kept my eyes down.”