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'I can't go back there,' refugee says

She boards plane to Utah and recounts New Orleans horrors

NEW ORLEANS — Sandra Lawrence will never go back to this storm-ravaged city.

She refuses, for the pain is too much to bear, the 32-year-old woman said as she boarded a Utah Air National Guard plane to Salt Lake City.

Utah is her home now.

"You don't know what I've seen," Lawrence said, hands shaking as she waited for the KC-135 refueling jet to take off for the West. "The psychological damage is just too much to handle. I can't go back there."

There is not much to go back to. Her home, which sits just yards away from one of the levees that failed and flooded the streets of New Orleans, is completely under water, Lawrence said.

Her two children, ages 15 and 1, are missing. They weren't with her the night of the hurricane, and she fears that they might not have survived, although she refuses to think that way.

"I'm just hoping and praying they're still alive," Lawrence said. "I can't think any other way."

Lawrence boarded the plane to Utah alone Saturday night.

She waited in line for more than 12 hours Saturday to catch a flight out of New Orleans, where reports of massive violence and looting have caused anarchy to rule the streets.

Other weary refugees waited for hours outside the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, most of them too tired to stand any longer. Litter peppered the streets around the line, while armed military members kept the peace with guard dogs and M-16s in hand.

In line, refugees sat on suitcases, coolers and anything else they could find during their long wait.

But the wait was worth it, Lawrence says.

She says she'll never forget the stench inside the Louisiana Superdome, where as many as 20,000 sought refuge from the rising floodwaters. During her four-day stay there, Lawrence says she witnessed rapes, murders and gang violence inside the overcrowded building.

"I've seen dead bodies, I've seen people getting whooped," Lawrence said. "I've had nightmares trying to sleep. I can't block those images from my mind."

Lawrence still can't believe she survived the wall of flood water that quickly filled her home Aug. 30. "I was just waiting to die," she said.

What she can remember next is a man coming into her home and carrying her out. She joined a group of other New Orleans residents, who also had lost everything, on top of a nearby building where a rescue helicopter soon evacuated her to the Superdome.

"I have never experienced anything like this in my life," Lawrence said.

Lawrence has no family here in her new home, Utah. She has no job, no money nor any plans for her future.

But she's happy for a new start.

She'll have some new-found friends, comrades in tragedy. Friends like Billy Stalbert, who held Lawrence the entire flight to Utah while she slept and calmed her fear of flying.

Friends like Ralph Taylor, who like everyone else on the plane has nothing left but hope for the future.

Taylor shared a thick, Army green blanket with Lawrence and another woman sitting nearby on the chilly flight to Utah Saturday night.

"I've got nothing right now," Taylor said. "I'm just glad to be going somewhere."


E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com