Thursday, September 01, 2005

Thousands feared killed; water fetid

NEW ORLEANS -- A major American city all but disintegrated, as the expected death toll from Hurricane Katrina mushroomed into the thousands in New Orleans and the mayor ordered 1,500 police to abandon their search-and-rescue mission Wednesday night to put a stop to looting.

"They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas -- hotels, hospitals, and we're going to stop it right now," Mayor Ray Nagin said in a statement after hundreds of looters roamed the city largely unchallenged during the day, ransacking tiny shops and big-box stores.

With police officers and National Guard troops giving priority to saving lives, looters brazenly ripped open gates and ransacked stores for food, clothing, TV sets, computers, jewelry and guns, often in full view of helpless law-enforcement officials. Dozens of carjackings, apparently by survivors desperate to escape, were reported, as were a number of shootings.

As Nagin redirected virtually the entire police force in New Orleans away from thousands still believed trapped in their homes, federal officials warned the toxic soup of pollutants, feces and decaying bodies covering the city could cause diseases, including cholera and typhoid, that would endanger many more.

"We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases that could come as a result of the stagnant water and the conditions," said Michael Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, in announcing a public health emergency from Louisiana to Florida.

Experts said it could be several weeks before the contaminated floodwaters are pumped from the city, heightening the risk of more hardship across an area already ravaged by Katrina, which roared in with a 145-m.p.h. fury Monday.

Nagin's frightening estimate of those killed in New Orleans alone would make the storm the nation's deadliest natural disaster since at least the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which killed up to 6,000.

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and other people dead in attics, Nagin said. Asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."

Army engineers, meanwhile, struggled to plug the city's breached levees, and authorities drew up plans to clear out the tens of thousands of people left in the Big Easy, including shuttling the 25,000 in the Superdome to the Astrodome in Houston, 350 miles away.

As the sense of desperation deepened in New Orleans, hundreds of people wandered up and down Interstate 10.

Stuck on an overpass, Patricia Trasher was so desperate that she uttered the unspeakable.

"I wish I had drowned," Trasher, 37, sobbed, begging for help to find her brother and trying to comfort her mother, who is deaf, and an aunt who has dementia.

Despite the despair, the rescue efforts went on.

Huge rescue effort

All day Wednesday, 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 are crucial to saving lives.

The skies above the city buzzed with National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters frantically dropping baskets to roofs where victims had been stranded for days.

Atop one apartment building, two children held up a giant sign scrawled with the words: "Help us!"

Emergency managers in New Orleans said new volumes of water largely stopped entering the city, but only because levels had equalized with Lake Pontchartrain.

Total recovery appeared to be far more remote. Officials of the Army Corps of Engineers said it would be weeks or months before the city could be pumped dry, and that it would take years to rebuild its thousands of homes and businesses, its streets, highways and other infrastructure.

President George W. Bush pledged vast assistance, but acknowledged: "This recovery will take years."

Evacuation to Astrodome

By late Wednesday afternoon, the slow evacuation of the Superdome began. The sick and disabled were the first to be led out. But some couldn't wait for one of the almost 500 buses scheduled to ferry people to the Astrodome in Houston by Friday.

Bernice Mueller, 71, said she could not stay another minute in the sickening heat and stench. "I'm going to take my chances with the water and swim," she said.

From Slidell, La., to Mobile, Ala., the entire Gulf Coast around and south of I-10 was a morass of fallen trees, smashed buildings, mud and hot, sweaty, hungry people.

Residents grew restless and angry.

"We have not had any assistance down here, whatsoever," Don Franklin, 48, said as he stood on Main Street in Biloxi. "Not one case of bottled water."

The folks who fled New Orleans only knew that they'll be away a long time.

"Nothing, nothing, nothing," groaned Craig (Poncho) Thompson. "We got nothing."


Post a Comment

<< Home

Ibiza Maps