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With Some Now at the Breaking Point, Officers Tell of Pain and Pressure

 
NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 5 - Sgt. Jeff Sandoz, clad in black SWAT team fatigues with an assault gun nearby, took a break on Monday afternoon for a cheeseburger, his first hot meal in a week, in the breezeway at the shuttered Harrah's casino on the edge of the French Quarter.

Rescuing people from rooftops and attics and chasing looters since Hurricane Katrina flooded the city, the discomforts have piled up, Sergeant Sandoz acknowledged. His shoulder was bruised on Wednesday when his police cruiser was rammed by someone running a stop sign on one of New Orleans's nearly deserted streets. He has been catching about three hours of sleep a night, curled up in the back seat of his patrol car, and showering with a garden hose.

He did not want to talk about the blisters or funguses and rashes that have erupted - after days of wading in polluted water in wet boots and dirty socks - on the feet of most everyone in the eight-man tactical unit he commands.

The last week has been a series of nonstop rescue missions, shootouts in the night and forays into foul-smelling shelters in response to gunshots and reports of rape for Sergeant Sandoz and the others on the New Orleans police force. And like most everyone in New Orleans, police officers have been traumatized by the loss of homes and family members.

Morale on the police force is in tatters. About 500 officers - a third of the force and far more than previously estimated - have dropped out of the daily lineup. Some of them may still be in houses cut off by the storm or may have simply gone off to help their families and will eventually return. But most of the missing officers have either told their superiors that they were quitting or simply walked off the job. Two officers have shot themselves to death.

Sergeant Sandoz and his urban commandos, one of the city's toughest, most elite units, have absorbed much of the violence in stride. Unlike a number of officers who have succumbed to the pressure and those who have begun five-day vacations, the sergeant said he was not going anywhere except into the streets to do his job.

"You just suck it up and drive on," he said. "I'll be here as long as they need me. I'm not running away from anything."

Still, he reserved judgment, as did many others, of the officers who have abandoned the force or collapsed.

Sergeant Sandoz and his commandos have been tested by the long hours and the nagging inconveniences, like shortages of gasoline for their cars and other supplies. They expressed concerns, like many others, about the security of their jobs in a city that is taking steps to shut down for repairs. They wonder whether they will be paid for the overtime that they are logging under near battlefield conditions.

Trying to lift spirits, the Police Department is giving every officer a five-day vacation over the next two weeks as the military steps in to replace them. Those who want to go to Las Vegas are being given plane tickets and hotel rooms for them and their families. Their breaks are beginning with physical examinations in Baton Rouge, the state capital, 75 miles north of New Orleans, inoculations against water-borne disease and other necessary medical treatment. After their breaks, the officers will start receiving psychological counseling.

Many officers said Monday that they are grateful for the breather but that they had no interest in going to Las Vegas.

"There's nothing in Las Vegas for me," said Officer Darryl Scheuermann, 41, a member of the SWAT team. "I'm going to see my family. I miss my wife and my dogs."

In one week, some officers have seen more violence than in a lifetime. Officer Brian French ducked sniper bullets while ferrying 50 women and children to a shelter in a commandeered rental truck.

Lt. Julie Wilson watched a fellow officer and old friend being shot by looters attacking a convenience store. Lt. Billy Ceravalo and Lt. Brian Weiss lost their police station in the flooding, then used their hands and oxygen pumps to keep hospital patients alive for hours while begging for assistance.

Some officers stayed in their homes as the hurricane swept over New Orleans and were forced to climb onto rooftops with their families as floodwaters rose.

Their pleas for help poured in over emergency radios.

"We were hearing officers on the roofs of their houses begging for someone to help them," Lieutenant Wilson said.

One officer, she said, "told me he was trapped in water up to his chest."

"I tried to get somebody out to him," she continued, but "we haven't heard from him since. I don't know if he is alive or dead."

Lt. Wilson's 11-year-old son, Daniel, was shipped off to neighbors. But for most of the week she had no idea where he was and worried that he feared for her as well.

Now, the promise of a vacation in Las Vegas or Atlanta does not make her feel better.

"It's a really nice gesture," she said. "But I just want to be able to get one night's sleep without hearing helicopters. I don't think I need five days off from this, just a couple of nights."

Officer Brian French, 25, a native of Ohio, joined the New Orleans Police Department because he wanted a chance to do "real police work."

Although he has heard city and state officials placing blame on the federal government for not coming fast enough, Officer French also questioned why local officers were not mustered sooner for special duty.

"They told us not to come in on Sunday, the day of the storm, to come in the next day to save money on their budget," he said.

But he never made it to work on Monday, at least not to the station house.

Officer French, 25, moved his family into a hotel. The hotel flooded, and looters attacked a nearby gas station. He went out into the storm, grabbed the looters and handcuffed them to a railing at the hotel. But, worried that they might die in the rising waters, he let them go.

He kept his family in the hotel for several days. But they began running out of water, and one evening shooting broke out.

For several days, Officer French rescued survivors from flooded homes. One of those he saved was Officer Willie Gaunt, who has since resigned.

The city's police superintendent, P. Edwin Compass III, hustled to position boats and cars before the hurricane arrived, and afterward directed rescues and charged after looters.

"We had no food," he told reporters in Baton Rouge on Monday. "We had no water. We ran out of ammunition. We had no vehicles. We were fighting in waist-deep water."

Mr. Compass has been accused of poorly planning for the hurricane. But he and other city officials said they were simply overwhelmed by a crisis that no municipality could handle. The disaster was compounded, they said, when federal officials in Washington ignored their cries for help for several days.

Immediately after the hurricane, Mr. Compass said, "we had to use so much of our manpower to fight" criminals that some rescues were delayed. "I had officers in boats who were being shot at as they were pulling people out of the water," he said