The Guard Was There

It took me a day to catch up with this, but Thursday's Washington Post carried a long reconstruction of just what happened that horrific first week inside the New Orleans Convention Center. One telling detail: early on, the Center's liquor storage locker was opened, and
"They took so much, they couldn't drink it all," said George Lancie, manager of the center's food-service company.

And, despite the widespread impression that there was no presence of police or military at the Center, the Post reports:

By Tuesday night, a contingent of at least 250 Louisiana National Guard troops was hunkered down in Hall A, off Julia Street at the northern end of the building.

The armed troops, from at least two engineering battalions -- the 769th and 527th -- had been assigned to set up a base at the center to prepare for debris removal and road clearing, as well as rescue and security. But they had enough food and water only for themselves and had no immediate orders to provide assistance or security for the thousands of evacuees in their midst, according to interviews with a dozen enlisted soldiers and officers.

Instead, as the danger level grew, they felt they must first protect themselves.

"There was way too many of them and way too few of us," said Master Sgt. Chad Anderson, 37. "Since we couldn't help them, it was best to avoid them. They had a mob, crazy mentality."

Whenever the soldiers left the center on missions, they drove west on Julia Street and away from the throngs of people begging for food and water along Convention Center Boulevard. "When they saw the soldiers, they'd think, 'That's food,' " said Sgt. Karla Spillers, 26. "We didn't have any for them. We had to feed our own people."

Spillers said she felt pain at the knowledge that teenage girls were wandering around the center, alone, knowing they were possible prey.

"There were prisoners, mobsters, gangs" in there, she said.

Almost as soon as they arrived, Guard commanders became concerned enough about the safety of their troops that they ordered more weapons and ammunition. On Wednesday night, there was kicking and banging on the doors to Hall A, where the guardsmen were. "They were trying to break the doors and get us," said Anderson. "They knew we were there."

"About 9 that night, we started barricading the doors," said Staff Sgt. Bryan Lowery, a supply sergeant with the 527th battalion.

Guardsmen parked at least three dump trucks next to the doors to block them, and Lowery began dispensing weapons and ammunition.

"It scared me," Spillers recalled. "Everyone went to get their weapons from the backs of the trucks."

That night, Guard commanders figured the convention center was untenable as a staging base. And they, too, left the center despite what Fore said were his pleas to stay.

"We were told they couldn't help us unless the order came down from the top, from a lot of people," Fore said. "The only time they partnered with us was when there were gunshots in the area where they were actually staying. They protected themselves."

Maj. Keith Waddell, commander of the 769th Engineer Battalion, said his unit was never asked to quell the violence at the convention center. "The idea of helping with the convention center never came up," he said. "We were just preparing ourselves for the next mission."

Waddell said he believes that, if so ordered, the Louisiana Guard forces present would have been adequate to get the center under control.

"I feel confident we could have controlled it, with the numbers we had," Waddell said.

But senior commanders indicated they had ruled out that possibility. Col. Stephen C. Dabadie, chief of staff of the Louisiana National Guard, said the engineer units were "not designed to secure the convention center."