Diary from the Dome
UCSD Staff Member Recalls Ordeal in Superdome During Hurricane
Ioana Patringenaru | October 13, 2008
Paul Harris in front of the Hyatt Regency Hotel as his ordeal was almost over.
Click here to learn more about Paul Harris' book, "Diary from the Dome."
Paul Harris, then a staff member at UCSD’s Geisel Library, arrived in New Orleans three days before Hurricane Katrina hit the city. He was eager to sample gumbo and listen to jazz music. Instead, he found himself trapped in the Superdome with thousands of other evacuees, eating military ready-to-eat meals and listening for news from the outside world on battery-powered radios.
It’s been three years since Harris’ ordeal in New Orleans, and he has written a self-published book about the experience, titled “Diary From the Dome.” Writing the book allowed him to come to grips with his days in the Superdome, he said. “The book was therapy,” he added. Harris also said he hoped his readers will learn to be prepared and to hold elected leaders accountable. “Don’t let fear control you,” was one of the lessons he took away from Hurricane Katrina, he said.
Harris worked at UC San Diego for 21 years, most recently as the manager of the Geisel Library’s information desk, before retiring this summer. He is soft-spoken and very matter-of-fact about what happened to him in New Orleans, including sleeping in the bleachers at the Superdome, helping take care of sick and elderly evacuees at the New Orleans Arena, and escaping town on a bus. He said he emerged from the experience more tolerant of other human beings but less trusting of government agencies. “I know now that I can’t trust the federal government to have a safety net there,” he said. “I had it easy,” he later added. “All I lost was a pair of shoes.”
Harris’ stay in New Orleans three years ago started normally enough, when he checked in Friday night at the Hotel St. Pierre in the French Quarter. Within two days, he would be sleeping on a stadium chair at the Superdome. That Friday night, he sampled some gumbo at a local restaurant and some of the city’s famous nightlife in local bars. But the next day, he found out his hotel would be closing Sunday because the city might have to be evacuated. So, Harris moved to a Best Western hotel. By Sunday morning, that hotel was closed too. He had been following Katrina’s progress on TV, so the news didn’t come as a surprise. “I knew it was coming,” he said.
A family wades in the flooded streets of New Orleans. Harris photographed them from the Sports Arena, where he and a group of international tourists were able to take shelter after harrowing days at the Superdome.
The New Orleans airport had shut down and Harris headed to the Amtrak and Greyhound station in hopes to catch a bus out of town. But the station was closed. With nowhere to stay and no way to leave, the UCSD staff member seemed to be running out of options, when a police officer advised him to go to the Superdome, which had become a shelter.
Harris said he was probably one of the first 500 people to arrive at the stadium. Many of those waiting in line looked like they were homeless, he writes in his book. He waited about four hours before he could get in and underwent a thorough search of his belongings and his person. He even had to show identification to keep his prescription Motrin.
When he finally got in, he found two seats under an overhang. After a while, he fit a T-shirt over his suitcase, to make it harder for thieves to break in. To pass the time, he started walking around and talking pictures, his camera and his wallet always tucked into the front pockets of his pants. He lingered near fellow evacuees who had battery-powered radios, hoping to hear some news from the outside.
He also did a lot of people-watching. As more evacuees arrived, a broad spectrum of humanity was represented at the Superdome, from homeless men to wealthy women, Harris recalled. He met a church group that had come to volunteer at the stadium and whose preacher slipped and broke his leg on their first day there. He met an African-American doctor who had been rescued from his rooftop. He heard the story of a man taking his boat through New Orleans, rescuing Katrina’s victims and bringing them to the Superdome.
Harris was one of the first few hundreds to go to the Superdome to find shelter. Here, evacuees line up to be searched for weapons and other contraband.
Harris said he believes most evacuees were law-abiding families with children. But their ever-increasing numbers started putting a strain on the stadium. At first, Harris stood in line for an hour to get lunch. By the time he left the Superdome, a continuous line sneaked around the stadium’s field and getting food, in the form of military rations, took three to four hours.
At around 6 a.m. Monday, the edges of Hurricane Katrina started bearing down on the city, Harris recalls. The electricity went off, and though back-up generators kicked in shortly afterwards, the Superdome lost its air conditioning and about half of its lights. Worse, several panels blew off the roof and water started dripping in. By Tuesday, Harris had heard that water was rising in the city, and he pictured all 20,000 evacuees drowning slowly in the stadium.
“I had a sinking feeling that the safety net in the United States was gone,” he said.
Rumors had started swirling about attacks and rapes. Nauseating odors were everywhere. By that time, Harris had joined a group of international tourists, who were sitting in the Superdome’s Section 113. The diverse group started with about 30 tourists and foreign students, from as far as Australia, France and China, and ballooned to about 100 people. A talent scout from Brisbane, Australia, Bud Hopes, had become their de facto leader and was working with a National Guardsman from Louisiana to try and get them out of the Superdome.
Smoke rises above the crowded patio of the superdome. Harris and other evacuees didn’t know where it came from.
Wednesday, the group was finally able to leave the stadium for the nearby New Orleans Arena, where the ill and the wounded had taken refuge. Several members of Harris’ group had medical training and quickly set off to help. Harris also lent a hand, fanning patients in wheelchairs for hours and picking up trash off the floor.
That night, Harris and his group got to sleep on cots, in the arena’s VIP lounge. “The accommodations were heaven to us,” he recalled, noting they had so far slept in stadium chairs. But Thursday, Harris and his group moved again, this time to the Hyatt Regency, where New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had been staying during the crisis.
Here too, the UCSD staff member experienced a moment of panic. His group was gathered in the lobby, when a woman ran in, screaming: “They’re here, they’re here.” Harris suddenly pictured evacuees from the Superdome rioting and coming over to the Hyatt. He ran, as did his fellow Section 113 members. They were strongly reprimanded for causing a panic by one of the doctors stationed at the hotel. Nevertheless, the group decided that they wanted to somehow identify themselves. They found some yellow caution tape and wrapped it around their wrists. Harris recalls wearing the tape for two days after he returned to San Diego. “It meant that much to me,” he said.
The Superdome, as seen from the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Orleans.
Friday, Harris and his group were finally able to leave New Orleans. They boarded buses headed for Dallas. On the way, they stopped at a rest area, where they received hotdogs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Gatorade and water. Harris arrived around 4 a.m. Saturday at the Dallas Convention Center, where he checked into a Red Cross shelter. Then he took a cab to the airport, where United Airlines employees had no trouble finding him a seat on a flight to San Diego, via Denver. In Denver, he watched coverage of Hurricane Katrina on TV for the first time. He started to cry.
“I could only watch bits and pieces,” he wrote. “It was too fresh and real for me.”