Poor, homeless, frail flock to the safety of New Orleans Superdome as Hurricane Katrina is approaching

For as many as 35,000 of this city's poor, homeless and frail, just getting into the massive Louisiana Superdome and hunkering down was the hardest part.

The sickest among them didn't flee the 160-mph (257-kph) wrath of Hurricane Katrina on Sunday as much as they hobbled to safety on crutches, canes and on stretchers. Others lined up for blocks, clutching meager belongings and crying children as National Guardsman searched them for guns, knives and drugs.

"We just took the necessities," said Michael Skipper, who pulled a wagon loaded with bags of clothes and a radio. "The good stuff _ the television and the furniture _ you just have to hope something's there when you get back. If it's not, you just start over."

Then Katrina's rain began, heavy and steady, drenching hundreds of people still outside, along with their bags of food and clothing.

Eventually, the searches were moved inside to the Superdome floor, where some people wrapped themselves in blankets and tried to sleep. In the designated medical area, people in wheelchairs lined the corridors. Hundreds of others sat on the loading docks, their possessions around them, waiting to be taken elsewhere.

Mary Francis Brooks had been there since 7:30 a.m., just waiting to get in. "I don't think the storm can be much worse than the buildup here," she said. "This has been a nightmare."

New Orleans' most frail residents got priority for placement in the makeshift Superdome shelter, by far the most solid of the Big Easy's 10 refuges of last resort for the estimated 100,000 city residents who don't have the means, or strength to join a mandatory evacuation. By nightfall, an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 heeded the call.

The dome, with its bare floor and stadium seats, is likely to end up their home for the next few days as the hurricane hits and the region deals with its aftermath.

"They told us not to stay in our houses because it wasn't safe," said 76-year-old Victoria Young, who sat amid plastic bags and a metal walker. "It's not safe anywhere when you're in the shape we're in."

Curtis Cockran, 54, a diabetic who recently had hip surgery, sat in his wheelchair on a loading dock at the dome while nurses, emergency technicians and doctors attended to refugees' needs.

"I just want a place I can be quiet and left alone," he said. "I don't know if I'll have a place to go back to, but there's no reason to worry about that now. For the time being I just want to be safe."

More serious cases had to be taken to other cities in Louisiana for medical care.

"There are some conditions we just can't handle here," said Dr. Kevin Stephens, Sr., head of New Orleans' health department. "Like dialysis. We can't do that, and they'll be here three or four days, so they'll need it before then."

The 77,000-seat stadium, home to the New Orleans Saints football team, provided few comforts but at least had bathrooms for the refugees and food donated by several charities.

"They may be here for a while," said Gen. Ralph Lupin, the National Guardsman in charge of the shelter. "The electricity will be out after the storm; streets will be almost impassable. So once they get here, they'll have to stay for the duration."

Guardsmen made able-bodied people clasp their hands behind their backs while they patted them down, feeling the seams and hems of clothing, then ran metal detectors over them. The backpacks, suitcases and plastic grocery bags that held their belongings were searched.

Alice George, 76, a homeless woman wearing shorts and a T-shirt with the word "Love" on the front, was searched for almost 10 minutes.

"They took my cigarettes and lighter," she said. "I guess I'll do without."

Joey Branson wasn't worried. The 42-year-old breezed through the search with just a fresh apple pie and a paperback mystery.

"That's all I need," he said, smiling. "I'm set for the duration." AP reported.

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