DURHAM — A trio of Duke University sophomores say they drove to New Orleans late last week, posed as journalists to slip inside the hurricane-soaked city twice, and evacuated seven people who weren’t receiving help from authorities.
The group, led by South Carolina native Sonny Byrd, say they also managed to drive all the way to the New Orleans Convention Center, where they encountered scenes early Saturday evening that they say were disgraceful.
“We found it absolutely incredible that the authorities had no way to get there for four or five days, that they didn’t go in and help these people, and we made it in a two-wheel-drive Hyundai,” said Hans Buder, who made the trip with his roommate Byrd and another student, David Hankla.
Buder’s account — told by cell phone Sunday evening as the trio neared Montgomery, Ala., on their way home — chronicled a three-day odyssey that began when the students, angered by the news reports they were seeing on CNN, loaded up their car with bottled water and headed for the Gulf coast to see if they could lend a hand.
The trio say they left Durham about 6 p.m. Thursday and reached Montgomery about 12 hours later. After catching 1½ hours of sleep, they reached the coast at Mobile. From there, they traveled through the Mississippi cities of Biloxi and Gulfport.
They say they elected to keep going because it seemed like Mississippi authorities had things well in hand.
Pushing on, they passed through Slidell, La., and tried to get into New Orleans by a couple of routes. Each time, police and National Guard troops turned them away. By 2 p.m. they’d wound up in Baton Rouge.
Stopping first at a Red Cross shelter and then at offices of a Baton Rouge TV station, WAFB, they eventually made their way to the campus of Louisiana State University. By 8 p.m. Friday they were working as volunteers in an emergency assistance area set up inside LSU’s indoor track arena.
The students worked until about 2 a.m. Saturday, then slept on the floor of a dorm room. When they awoke, they went back to the TV station, which was hosting what Buder termed “a distribution center” for supplies.
At 2 p.m., the trio decided to head for New Orleans, Buder said. After looking around, they swiped an Associated Press identification and one of the TV station’s crew shirts, and found a Kinko’s where they could make copies of the ID.
They were stopped again by authorities at the edge of New Orleans, but this time were able to make it through.
“We waved the press pass, and they looked at each other, the two guards, and waved us on in,” Buder said.
Inside the city, they found a surreal environment.
“It was wild,” Buder said. “It really felt like it was ‘Independence Day,’ the movie.”
The trio dodged downed trees and power lines until they happened upon Magazine Street, which runs in a semi-circle around the city parallel to and about four blocks north of the Mississippi River.
They stopped to give water to a 15-year-old boy sitting beside the road holding a sign that said “Need Water/Food,” then went to the convention center.
The evacuation was basically complete by the time they arrived, at about 6:30 or 6:45 p.m. What the trio saw there horrified them.
“The only way I can describe this, it was the epicenter,” Buder said. “Inside there were National Guard running around, there was feces, people had urinated, soiled the carpet. There were dead bodies. The smell will never leave me.”
Buder said the students saw four or five bodies. National Guard troopers seemed to be checking the second and third floors of the building to try to secure the site.
“Anyone who knows that area, if you had a bus, it would take you no more than 20 minutes to drive in with a bus and get these people out,” Buder said. “They sat there for four or five days with no food, no water, babies getting raped in the bathrooms, there were murders, nobody was doing anything for these people. And we just drove right in, really disgraceful. I don’t want to get too fired up with the rhetoric, but some blame needs to be placed somewhere.”
By about 7 p.m., the students made their way back to the boy on Magazine Street. He directed them to some people “who really needed to get out.” The resulting evacuation began at a house at the corner of Magazine and Peniston streets.
The first group included three women and a man. The students climbed into the front seats of the four-door Hyundai, and the evacuees filled the back seat. They left the city and headed back to Baton Rouge. There they deposited the man at the LSU medical center and took the women to dinner. The women later found shelter with relatives, and the students got about four hours’ sleep inside the LSU chapel.
At 6:30 a.m. Sunday, they made their second run into New Orleans, returning to the house at Magazine and Peniston streets. This time they picked up three men and headed back to Baton Rouge. Two of the men were the husbands of two of the women evacuated the night before. The students reunited them with their wives and put the two families on a bus for Texas.
Buder is from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; Byrd is from Rock Hill, S.C.; and Hankla is from Washington, D.C.