NEW ORLEANS – The last 300 refugees in the Superdome climbed aboard buses Saturday bound for new temporary shelter, leaving behind a darkened and stinking arena strewn with trash.
The sight of the last person — an elderly man wearing a Houston Rockets cap — prompted cheers from members of the Texas National Guard (search) who were guarding the facility.
"I feel like I've been here 40 years," said Louis Dalmas Sr., one of the last people out of the arena. "Any bus going anywhere — that's all I want."
Inside and outside the Superdome (search) — including the concourse around it and a 50-yard bridge that connects it to a shopping center — was a sea of garbage up to 5 feet deep.
Among the food wrappers, abandoned shopping carts and upturned chairs were personal items, including wedding albums, clothing, toys, a PlayStation console, and a doll.
Jessica Montgomery left behind a suitcase and a pillow case full of mementos.
"I wanted it, but I just couldn't carry it any farther," she said.
Capt. Joe Haines said the final day of evacuations went according to plan. The dome's 10 acres was next to be searched to ensure there are no bodies beneath the trash, while cleanup crews are to rake away the piles to discourage rats.
Tina Miller, 47, had no shoes and cried with relief and exhaustion as she left the Superdome and walked toward a bus. "I never thought I'd make it. Oh, God, I thought I'd die in there. I've never been through anything this awful."
In addition to five medical patients who had to be carried out, several of the final refugees smelled of alcohol after having apparently scavenged liquor bottles from the debris. One man was led away in handcuffs.
The inside of the dome was pitch black as the last people left. Bathrooms had no lights, making people afraid to enter, and the stench from backed-up toilets inside killed any inclination toward bravery.
"When we have to go to the bathroom we just get a box. That's all you can do now," said Sandra Jones of eastern New Orleans earlier Saturday.
Her newborn baby was running a fever, and all the small children in her area had rashes, she said.
"This was the worst night of my life. We were really scared. We're getting no help. I know the military police are trying. But they're outnumbered," Jones said.
The arena's second-story concourse looked like a dump, with more than a foot of trash except in the occasional area where people were working to keep things as tidy as possible.
Capt. John Pollard of the Texas Air Force National Guard (search) said 20,000 people were in the dome when the evacuation efforts began Wednesday. That number swelled to about 30,000 when people poured in because they believed it was the best place to get a ride out of town.
Many of the Superdome refugees were bused to Texas. Besides the 25,000 or so being brought to Houston, officials said another 25,000 would be taken to San Antonio and other locations.
Tensions at the dome ran high ever since residents unable to get out of the city ahead of as Hurricane Katrina used it as a shelter of last resort. A near-riot broke out in the scramble to get on the first few buses that arrived to ferry evacuees to Texas.
After that, lines of people a half-mile long snaked from the dome through the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel, then to where buses waited. Babies were held over parents' heads, and the sun beat down mercilessly. State troopers, making every effort to be cheerful, handed out bottles of water and tried to keep families and groups together.
At one point Friday, the evacuation was interrupted briefly when school buses pulled up so some 700 guests and employees from the hotel could move to the head of the evacuation line — much to the amazement of those who had been crammed in the Superdome since last Sunday.
"How does this work? They [are] clean, they are dry, they get out ahead of us?" exclaimed Howard Blue, 22, who tried to get in their line. The National Guard blocked him as other guardsmen helped the well-dressed guests with their luggage.
Conditions in the Superdome remained unbearable even as the crowd shrank after buses ferried thousands to Houston a day earlier. Much of the medical staff that had been working in the "special needs" arena had been evacuated.
Dr. Kenneth Stephens Sr., head of the medical operations, said he was told they would be moved to help in other medical areas.
Those who wanted food were waiting in line for hours to get it, said Becky Larue, of Des Moines, Iowa.
Larue and her husband arrived in the area last week for a vacation but their hotel soon told them they had to leave and directed them to the Superdome. No directions were provided, she said.
"I'm really scared. I think people are going into a survival mode. I look for people to start injuring themselves just to get out of here," she said.
Larue said she was down to her last blood pressure pill and had no idea of when they'll get out or where to get help.
James LeFlere, 56, was trying to remain optimistic.
"They're going to get us out of here. It's just hard to hang on at this point," he said.
Janice Singleton, a worker at the Superdome, said she got stuck in the stadium when the storm hit. She said she was robbed of everything she had with her, including her shoes.
"They tore that dome apart," she said sadly. "They tore it down. They taking everything out of there they can take."
Then she said, "I don't want to go to no Astrodome. I've been domed almost to death."