One week ago, Lia Mittelstadt was a long way from her hometown of Randolph, Wisconsin. She was in the middle of a nightmare.
Lia, her seven-year-old daughter Cassidy, and two-year-old daughter Mackenzie were on vacation in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. They ended up trapped at the chaotic Superdome with thousands of other evacuees.
"There was so much violence, so much murder, so much rape, so much looting... I still smell dead people, but there's no dead people here," says Mittelstadt.
The place that was supposed to be a sanctuary after the storm, turned out to be a living hell for Mittelstadt and her girls. "People just went crazy trying to get food to feed their kids. It was just unbelievable."
"There were already several children raped and several children murdered. And I just couldn't take it. We just slept outside. Somebody told me that was a safer option than trying to stay inside the Superdome, so we slept in garbage, with thousands of other people outside," explains Mittelstadt.
Roving gangs shoot at evacuees, and at one point, they step on daughter Mackenzie's head. At first, Lia fears the worst. "I was running down the street and yelling my baby's dead, my baby 's dead, please somebody help me."
They wait in line in the intense heat for hours on end for evacuation busses that don't come. "By that point, there were people dropping dead. You had to step over bodies to advance in the line."
Severely dehydrated and hungry, she struggles to survive. "My only goal was to live long enough to get the kids out. That was basically it. I did not have any hope at all of living through this," says Mittelstadt.
There are few people there to help the evacuees. "They didn't care. It was a total disregard for... they called us refugees? How can you call us refugees in the United States of America, when you are from the United States of America. We were treated like animals. I wouldn't treat an animal that way. Not even close."
Finally, after several days, she and her girls are bussed to Houston. Her husband flies there and brings them back to Wisconsin.
Mittelstadt says she's frustrated and angry at the government's response to the tragedy last week. "I would just like to ask President Bush, next time, cut your vacation short by a couple of days and maybe help us out."
She says she doesn't know how long it will take before the smell of death finally leaves her memory, before the nightmare of New Orleans is truly put to rest. "It's hard to put that image out of your mind of all that suffering," she says.
One of the most vivid scenes Lia says she'll never forget? One evacuee involved in a fight at the Superdome was holding her three–month old baby over her shoulder, and a gun in her other hand.