Archive for Thursday, September 1, 2005

Thousands feared dead; New Orleans evacuated

Katrina could be deadliest natural disaster since 1906; looting rife

September 1, 2005

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— With thousands feared drowned in what could be America's deadliest natural disaster in a century, New Orleans' leaders all but surrendered the streets to floodwaters Wednesday and began turning out the lights on the ruined city - perhaps for months.

Looting spiraled so out of control that Mayor Ray Nagin ordered virtually the entire police force to abandon search-and-rescue efforts and focus on the brazen packs of thieves who have turned increasingly hostile.

Nagin called for an all-out evacuation of the city's remaining residents. When asked how many people died, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."

With most of the city under water, Army engineers struggled to plug New Orleans' breached levees with giant sandbags and concrete barriers, and authorities drew up plans to clear out the tens of thousands of remaining people and practically abandon the below-sea-level city. Most of the evacuees - including thousands now suffering in the hot and muggy Superdome - will be moved to the Astrodome in Houston, 350 miles away.

'Total evacuation'


Volunteer Mickey Monceaux carries David Johnson, who could not walk, to safety after he used his boat to rescue Johnson and other residents from a flooded neighborhood Wednesday on the east side of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina left much of the city under water. Officials called for a mandatory evacuation of the city, but many residents remained and had to be rescued.

Volunteer Mickey Monceaux carries David Johnson, who could not walk, to safety after he used his boat to rescue Johnson and other residents from a flooded neighborhood Wednesday on the east side of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina left much of the city under water. Officials called for a mandatory evacuation of the city, but many residents remained and had to be rescued.

There will be a "total evacuation of the city. We have to. The city will not be functional for two or three months," Nagin said. And he said people would not be allowed back into their homes for at least a month or two.

If the mayor's death-toll estimate holds true, it would make Katrina the worst natural disaster in the United States since at least the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which have blamed for anywhere from about 500 to 6,000 deaths. Katrina would also be the nation's deadliest hurricane since 1900, when a storm in Galveston, Texas, killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people.

In Mississippi, bodies are starting to pile up at the morgue in hard-hit Harrison County. Forty corpses have brought to the morgue already, and officials expect the death toll in the county to climb well above 100.

Bush surveys disaster

President Bush flew over New Orleans and parts of Mississippi's hurricane-blasted coastline in Air Force One. Turning to his aides, he said: "It's totally wiped out. ... It's devastating, it's got to be doubly devastating on the ground."


Rhonda Braden walks through the destruction in her childhood neighborhood Wednesday in Long Beach, Miss. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the area where her father lived.

Rhonda Braden walks through the destruction in her childhood neighborhood Wednesday in Long Beach, Miss. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the area where her father lived.

"We're dealing with one of the worst national disasters in our nation's history," Bush said later in a televised address from the White House, which most victims could not see because power remains out to 1 million Gulf Coast residents.

Rescue efforts

The federal government dispatched helicopters, warships and elite SEAL water-rescue teams in one of the biggest relief operations in U.S. history, aimed at plucking residents from rooftops in the last of the "golden 72 hours" rescuers say is crucial to saving lives.

As fires burned from broken natural-gas mains, the skies above the city buzzed with National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters frantically dropping baskets to roofs where victims had been stranded since the storm roared in with a 145-mph fury Monday. Atop one apartment building, two children held up a giant sign scrawled with the words: "Help us!"


A barge, as well as shipping containers and loose lumber cover a neighborhood in an aerial view of damage Wednesday from Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss.

A barge, as well as shipping containers and loose lumber cover a neighborhood in an aerial view of damage Wednesday from Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss.

Looters

Looters used garbage cans and inflatable mattresses to float away with food, blue jeans, tennis shoes, TV sets - even guns. Outside one pharmacy, thieves commandeered a forklift and used it to push up the storm shutters and break through the glass. The driver of a nursing-home bus surrendered the vehicle to thugs after being threatened.

Police said their first priority remained saving lives, and mostly just stood by and watched the looting. But Nagin later said the looting had gotten so bad that stopping the thieves became the top priority for the police department.


Cars and rubble are seen piled up in an aerial view of wreckage Wednesday from Hurricane Katrina in Long Beach, Miss.

Cars and rubble are seen piled up in an aerial view of wreckage Wednesday from Hurricane Katrina in Long Beach, Miss.

"They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas - hotels, hospitals, and we're going to stop it right now," Nagin said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Refugees

Hundreds of people wandered up and down shattered Interstate 10 - the only major freeway leading into New Orleans from the east - pushing shopping carts, laundry racks, anything they could find to carry their belongings.

On some of the few roads that were still open, people waved at passing cars with empty water jugs, begging for relief. Hundreds of people appeared to have spent the night on a crippled highway.


Hurricane Katrina evacuee Ronda Caldoron, 35, from New Orleans, adjusts some signs on her car in a parking lot across the street from Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome in Houston. Caldoron was turned away from staying at the Astrodome, which will house only people who were stranded at the dank, sweltering Superdome in New Orleans, where the water was rising, the air conditioning was out and toilets were broken.

Hurricane Katrina evacuee Ronda Caldoron, 35, from New Orleans, adjusts some signs on her car in a parking lot across the street from Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome in Houston. Caldoron was turned away from staying at the Astrodome, which will house only people who were stranded at the dank, sweltering Superdome in New Orleans, where the water was rising, the air conditioning was out and toilets were broken.

Starting Thursday, authorities planned to move at least 25,000 storm refugees to the Astrodome in a vast convoy of some 500 buses provided by the federal government. With the air-conditioning knocked out, the Superdome has become stifling, its toilets are broken and there is nowhere for anyone to bathe.

Nagin, whose pre-hurricane evacuation order got most of his city of a half a million out of harm's way, estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people remained, and said that 14,000 to 15,000 a day could be evacuated in ensuing convoys.

"We have to," Nagin said. "It's not living conditions."

He also expressed concern about people staying in the water: "People walking in that water with those dead bodies, it can get in your pores, you don't have to drink it."

In addition to the Astrodome solution, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was considering putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks, and so-called floating dormitories.

Danger not past


Members of the National Guard stand in the end zone and watch over people who took shelter at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With the situation in the smelly and sweltering Superdome becoming ever more desperate, authorities have found a new home for the building's nearly 25,000 hurricane refugees: the Astrodome in Houston.

Members of the National Guard stand in the end zone and watch over people who took shelter at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With the situation in the smelly and sweltering Superdome becoming ever more desperate, authorities have found a new home for the building's nearly 25,000 hurricane refugees: the Astrodome in Houston.

The floodwaters streamed into the city's streets from two levee breaks near Lake Pontchartrain a day after New Orleans thought it had escaped catastrophic damage from Katrina. The floodwaters covered 80 percent of the city, in some areas 20 feet deep, in a reddish-brown soup of sewage, gasoline and garbage.

Around midday, officials with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers said the water levels between the city and Lake Pontchartrain had equalized, and water had stopped spilling into New Orleans, and even appeared to be falling. But the danger was far from over.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it planned to use heavy-duty Chinook helicopters to drop 15,000-pound bags of sand and stone as early as Wednesday night into the 500-foot gap in the failed floodwall.

But the agency said it was having trouble getting the sandbags and dozens of 15-foot highway barriers to the site because the city's waterways were blocked by loose barges, boats and large debris.

In Washington, the Bush administration decided to release crude oil from the federal petroleum reserves after Katrina knocked out 95 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's output. But because of the disruptions and damage to the refineries, gasoline prices surged above $3 a gallon in many parts of the country.

The death toll has reached at least 110 in Mississippi alone. But the full magnitude of the disaster had been unclear for days - in part, because some areas in both coastal Mississippi and New Orleans are still unreachable, but also because authorities' first priority has been the living.

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