St. Louisans survive lawlessness in French Quarter
By TOM UHLENBROCK
Of the St. LouisPost-Dispatch
(2 September 2005) -- A St. Louis lawyer and his wife spent most all of four days in a French Quarter hotel while the streets outside were filled with looters. Finally, they escaped New Orleans in the back of a pickup.
At one point, Tim Scheer and his wife, Judy, were among some 500 hotel guests who paid $22,500 for 10 buses to rescue them from the city. However, the buses were commandeered by police just minutes from the hotel and were redirected to help to evacuate people waiting at the Superdome.
"There was mass looting going on, the Walgreens next to us was wiped out clean," said Scheer, 36, a self-employed lawyer. "We never once saw a National Guard presence anywhere in the Quarter. We had to walk by gangs of thugs on the sidewalks with lead pipes, golf clubs, pistols under their shirts. We tried to maintain tunnel vision."
In an interview from a Houston airport where he was awaiting a flight back to St. Louis, Scheer said he and his wife arrived at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans on Thursday of last week to celebrate his wife's birthday. On Saturday morning, the couple saw that there were long lines at gas stations and learned a voluntary evacuation was underway because a hurricane was heading toward the city.
"We called the airport and tried to get an early flight out, but there were none," Scheer said. "The guests who had cars left. The hotel said it had three backup generators, and they weren't kicking us out."
The couple bought some supplies at a store in the Quarter and followed the hotel's advice to fill the bathtub of their room with water.
"At 10 a.m. Sunday, the winds really started to whip up, it was dark and desolate in the Quarter," Scheer said. "We didn't leave the hotel the rest of the day. The first thing Monday morning, we lost power and water. It got scarier and scarier. But we never felt threatened in our room."
The hotel provided food and water on Monday, and the Scheers ventured out on Tuesday to inspect the storm's damage. "Lampposts were down, canopies from hotels and bars were bent, walls were collapsed onto cars," Scheer said. "But the Quarter seem to weather the storm pretty good. Then all hell broke loose."
Levees had broken and floodwater was pouring into the city, reaching the edge of the Quarter. Martial law was declared and no civilian traffic was allowed.
"There was no security, looting was going on in the streets," Scheer said. "Things were deteriorating. I called everybody I knew and said we needed some security on the ground. Right then, I knew we were in trouble."
Wednesday, the Scheers and three other couples came up with a plan. They would walk across the Mississippi River bridge, out of the city, to be picked up by Scheer's cousin, who lives 135 miles from the French Quarter in New Iberia, La. But before they embarked on their walk, the hotel announced that buses were coming.
"They had arranged for buses with a police escort to come down from Shreveport. Guests at our hotel and another one were given first preference and they sold 500 tickets at $45 each," Scheer said. "We got a call that the buses were 10 minutes away, then we lost contact with the convoy. We found out they had been commandeered as they entered the city and sent to the Superdome."
A group of about 200 Monteleone guests decided to try to walk out of the city to the east, and got to the on-ramp at the Crescent Connection bridge, where they were met by Gretna, La., police with shotguns. "They told us the bridge was closed to foot traffic," Scheer said. "Some locals had joined us and became extremely unruly, threatening to rush the officers. They fired their shotguns into the air."
The Scheers and the three other couples began walking to the west down a highway, where they flagged down two locals in a pickup who offered to drive them to a shelter about 12 miles away in Kenner, La., to meet Scheer's cousin.
"Bottom line, we're in the back of the pickup, riding like hell through the rain," Scheer said. "They didn't want anything, but we forced several hundred dollars on them. Those guys saved our ass."
Reporter Tom Uhlenbrock
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