New Orleans Update

The Sun-Sentinel
By Doug Simpson (Associated Press)
Published September 06, 2005

With a major floodwall break finally plugged, engineers struggled to pump out the flooded city Tuesday as authorities braced for the horrors the receding water is certain to reveal. “It’s going to be awful and it’s going to wake the nation up again,” the mayor warned.

Mayor Ray Nagin said after an aerial tour that about 60 percent of the city was under water, down from 80 percent during the darkest hours last week. “We are starting to see some significant progress. I’m starting to see rays of light,” he said. Nagin said it would take three weeks to remove the water and another few weeks to clear the debris. It could also take up to eight weeks to get the electricity back on.

Still, he warned that what awaits authorities below the toxic muck would be gruesome. A day earlier, he said the death toll in New Orleans could reach 10,000. The Pentagon, meanwhile, began sending paratroopers from the Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division to New Orleans to use small boats, including inflatable Zodiac craft, to launch a new search-and-rescue effort in flooded sections of the city.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, division commander, said about 5,000 paratroopers would be in place by Tuesday. The Army Corps of Engineers began pumping the water out after closing a major gap in a key levee that burst during Hurricane Katrina and swamped 80 percent of the bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city. Efforts to evacuate holdouts were stepped up, with boat rescue crews and a caravan of law enforcement vehicles from around the country searching for people to rescue.

“In some cases, it’s real easy. They’re sitting on the porch with their bags packed,” said Joe Youdell of the Kentucky Air National Guard. “But some don’t want to leave and we can’t force them.” Nagin warned: “We have to convince them to leave. It’s not safe here. There is toxic waste in the water and dead bodies and mosquitoes and gas. We are pumping about a million dollars’ worth a gas a day in the air. Fires have been started and we don’t have running water.”

Early Tuesday, fire broke out at a big house in the historic Garden District _ a neighborhood with lots of antebellum mansions. National Guardsmen cordoned off the area as firefighters battled the blaze by helicopter. At the same time, the effort to get the evacuees back on their feet continued on several fronts. Patrick Rhode, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said evacuees would receive debit cards so that they could begin buying necessary personal items. He said the agency was going from shelter to shelter to make sure that evacuees received cards quickly and that the paperwork usually required would be reduced or eliminated.

“We’re eliminating as much red tape as humanly possible,” Rhode said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The Air Force late Monday concluded its huge airlift of elderly and serious ill patients from New Orleans’ major airport. A total of 9,788 patients and other evacuees were evacuated by air from the New Orleans area.

Local officials bitterly expressed frustration with the federal government’s sluggish response as the tragedy unfolded. “Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area. And bureaucracy needs to stand trial before Congress today,” Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, said on CBS’ “The Early Show.”

“So I’m asking Congress, please investigate this now. Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don’t give me the same idiot.” In addition to help from other Louisiana and Alabama departments, a Canadian task force of firefighters and police arrived four days after the storm, St. Bernard Fire Chief Thomas Stone said.

“If you can get a Canadian team here in four days, U.S. teams should be here faster than that,” Stone said. Pointing to two large oil refineries, “When they’re paying $5 to $6 a gallon for gas, they’re going to realize what this place means to America.” The frustrations were also felt along the Mississippi coast, where people who have chosen to stay or are stuck in demolished neighborhoods scavenge for necessities.

Some say they will stay to rebuild their communities. Others say they would leave if they could get a ride or a few gallons of gasoline. But all agree that – with no water or power available, probably for months – they need more help from the government just to survive. “I have been all over the world. I’ve been in a lot of Third World countries where people were better off than the people here are right now,” retired Air Force Capt. William Bissell said Monday. “We’ve got 28 miles of coastline here that’s absolutely destroyed, and the federal government, they’re not here.”

The scope of the misery inflicted by Katrina was evident Monday as President Bush visited Baton Rouge and Poplarville, Miss., his second inspection tour by ground. “Mississippi is a part of the future of this country and part of that future is to help you get back up on your feet,” Bush told 200 local officials. While in Louisiana, Bush tried to repair tattered relations with the state’s Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, while also praising relief workers. Blanco played down any tension.

“We’d like to stop the voices out there trying to create a divide. There is no divide,” she said. “Every leader in this nation wants to see this problem solved.” Meanwhile, former Presidents Bush and Clinton got smiles, hugs and requests for autographs when they met with refugees from Hurricane Katrina _ but it was Bush’s wife who got attention for some of her comments. Barbara Bush, who accompanied the former presidents on a tour of the Astrodome complex Monday, said the relocation to Houston is “working very well” for some of the poor people forced out of New Orleans. 

“What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality,” she said during a radio interview with the American Public Media program “Marketplace.” “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” The two ex-presidents, who teamed up during a fund-raising effort for victims of last year’s Asian tsunami, announced the creation of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.

“We’re most anxious to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” said former President George H.W. Bush. “It will take all of us working together to accomplish our goal. This job is too big for any one group.” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency for Texas, saying it would speed up federal assistance to help almost 240,000 storm evacuees – the most of any state. In New Orleans, Deputy Police Superintendent W.J. Riley estimated that fewer than 10,000 people were left in the city.

Some simply did not want to leave their homes, while others were hanging back to loot or commit other crimes, authorities said. Nagin said the city had the authority to force residents to evacuate but didn’t say if it was taking that step. He denied reports that the city will no longer hand out water to people who refuse to leave. The leader of troops patrolling New Orleans declared the city largely free of the lawlessness that plagued it in the days following the hurricane. He lashed out at suggestions that search-and-rescue operations were being stymied by random gunfire and lawlessness.

“Go on the streets of New Orleans _ it’s secure,” Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said to a reporter. “Have you been to New Orleans? Did anybody accost you?” In neighboring Jefferson Parish, some of its 460,000 residents got a chance to briefly see their flooded homes, and to scoop up soaked wedding pictures and other cherished mementos. “I won’t be getting inside today unless I get some scuba gear,” said Jack Rabito, a 61-year-old bar owner whose one-story home had water lapping at the gutters.

Associated Press writers Melinda Deslatte and Robert Tanner contributed to this report.