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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Bus Convoy to Move Thousands From Superdome to Astrodome - New York Times

Bus Convoy to Move Thousands From Superdome to Astrodome - New York TimesAugust 31, 2005
Bus Convoy to Move Thousands From Superdome to Astrodome
By JOSEPH B. TREASTER
and MARIA NEWMAN

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 31 -Thousands of refugees from Hurricane Katrina who sought shelter in the Superdome here will be taken by bus to Houston's Astrodome under a plan worked out by state, federal and other rescue agency officials, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas announced today.

In Washington, the Department of Homeland Security assumed control of the federal response to the disaster, with Secretary Michael Chertoff declaring the overwhelming devastation an "incident of national significance."

The Superdome refugees will make the 350-mile trip from New Orleans to Houston on 475 buses to be provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Governor Perry said. The Astrodome, which can provide living space for about 25,000 people, will be available to house them - and presumably other refugees - at least until December, and longer, if necessary. There are at least 10,000 people in the Superdome.

The governor also said that he would open the doors to Texas' public schools to children from out of state whose families were left homeless by the storms.

"By the grace of God, we could be the ones who have this extraordinary need," Mr. Perry said. "We're going to get through this together as one American family."

President Bush, who cut short his Texas vacation by a couple of days because of the devastation, will probably visit storm-ravaged areas on Saturday or Sunday, the chief White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters today. Mr. Bush got a glimpse of the destruction earlier today when Air Force One flew low over the Gulf Coast on its way back to Washington from Texas.

As officials continue to work on ways to recover from the disaster, President Bush planned to meet in Washington with a task force he established to coordinate the efforts of 14 federal agencies. He plans to ask Congress for more money to aid those affected by the storm, and he put the federal response to the disaster in the hands of the Homeland Security Department, led by Mr. Chertoff.

That designation will set in motion, for the first time, a national emergency plan devised after the 2001 terror attacks to coordinate the work of several agencies aiding recovery efforts. "We will work tirelessly to ensure that our fellow citizens have the sustained support and the necessary aid to recover and reclaim their homes, their lives, and their communities," Mr. Chertoff said in a televised briefing.

On the ground, search-and-rescue teams in helicopters and boats continued to search for survivors in the flooded and battered city of New Orleans, with hundreds already plucked from rooftops of flooded houses. Officials said that it could be months before residents would be allowed to return to their homes.

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana flew over the devastated area today, and later, with tears in her eyes, recounted to reporters seeing people stranded on rooftops, water taking over homes. The death toll, she said, will probably continue to rise.

"This is heartbreaking," she said. "I think people will have to draw on their inner strength."

The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, told reporters that "we know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water" and that there were others in the attics of flood houses, leading him to believe, The Associated Press reported, that the ultimate death toll could be "minimum, hundreds, most likely, thousands."

Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, who accompanied the governor on her survey, said that it was difficult to view her devastated hometown from the air. "What I saw today is equivalent to what I saw flying over the tsunami area," she said. "There are places that are no longer there."

In Mississippi, officials raised the official count of the dead to at least 100. "It looks like Hiroshima, is what it looks like," Gov. Haley Barbour said in describing parts of Harrison County, Miss.

Governor Blanco said relief efforts had to first focus on getting people out of afflicted areas, and to bring enough food and water to help survivors and refugees. She also said a top priority for Louisiana was repairing the two breaches that developed on Tuesday in levees that were holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.

Workers for the Army Corps of Engineers today continued to drop 3,000-pound containers to try to close one 500-foot gap in the levee. But agency officials that they were having trouble getting needed equipment to the work sites because many bridges and roads were destroyed during the storm.

Despite the obstacles, Louisiana officials said that they 250 slings were on their way, and that there were 100 additional 3,000-pound containers filled and ready to be dropped into the hole later today or tonight. About 250 concrete barriers have been delivered on site already.

"The challenge is an engineering nightmare," Ms. Blanco said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

As rising water and widespread devastation hobbled rescue and recovery efforts, the authorities could only guess at the death toll along the Gulf Coast. Across the region, rescue workers were not even trying to gather up and count the dead, officials said, but pushed them aside for the time being as they tried to find the living.

In New Orleans, it was not the water from the sky but the water that broke through the city's protective barriers that changed everything for the worse. With a population of nearly 500,000, New Orleans is protected from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain by levees.

When the levees gave way in some critical spots, streets that were essentially dry in the hours immediately after the hurricane passed were several feet deep in water on Tuesday morning. Even downtown areas that lie on higher ground were flooded. Mayor Nagin said both city airports were under water.

The Superdome's roof suffered damage during the storm, and rising waters around the arena have meant that refugees were huddled in increasingly grim conditions as water and food dwindled, toilets overflowed and flood waters threatened emergency generators. One woman with an 18-month-old baby said her last bottle of baby formula was nearly empty.

Swaths of the roof had been peeled away by the powerful winds of Hurricane Katrina, and it was stifling inside without air-conditioning.

During the day, additional survivors were deposited at the Superdome by rescuers, but the absence of food and power, not to mention the water lapping at the doors, made their continued stay perilous, leading to the Houston Astrodome plan. Mayor Nagin estimated that it would be one to two weeks before the water could be pumped out of the New Orleans arena. Another city official said it would be two months before the schools could reopen.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to need temporary homes for indefinite durations. The authorities were looking at renting apartments, putting people up in trailers and establishing floating dormitories.

Looting broke out as opportunistic thieves cleaned out abandoned stores for a second night. In one incident, officials said, a police officer was shot and critically wounded.

"These are not individuals looting," Col. Terry Ebbert, the city's director of homeland security, said. "These are large groups of armed individuals."

Hundreds of critically-ill patients had to be evacuated from Charity Hospital and Tulane University Hospital because of the flooding.

At Tulane, they were removed by helicopter from the roof of a parking garage. The staff of the city's major daily, The Times-Picayune, which was able to publish only an online version of Tuesday editions, was forced to flee the paper's offices.

Getting food and clean water into the city was an urgent priority. Officials said that there was only one way for emergency vehicles to get into parts of the city to bring in supplies.

"We're racing the clock in terms of possible injury," Mr. Chertoff, the national homeland security secretary, said. "We're racing the clock in terms of illness, and we're racing the clock to get them food and water."

Preliminary damage estimates from insurance experts on Monday ranged from $9 billion to $16 billion, but they were pushed up past $25 billion on Tuesday, which could make Hurricane Katrina the costliest in history, surpassing Hurricane Andrew in 1992, with $21 billion in insured losses.

As the scope of the damage to oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico became more apparent, energy prices rocketed to record highs. Experts predicted that further increases were likely.

Today, the Energy Department said it would release oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to keep refineries supplied.

From the air, New Orleans was a shocking sight of utter demolition. Seen from the vantage point of a Jefferson Parish sheriff's helicopter transporting FEMA officials, vast stretches of the city resembled a community of houseboats. Twenty-block neighborhoods were under water as high as the roofs of three-story houses. One large building, the Galleria, had most, if not all, of its 600 windows blown out.

Sections of Interstate 10, the principal artery through the city, had pieces missing or misaligned, as if the highway were an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. Parts of the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the world's longest overwater highway bridge, were missing as well. Fires had broken out in sundry buildings, and hundreds of thousands of people were without power.

One woman swam from her home on Monday and then walked through the night to take shelter in a 24-hour bar in the French Quarter. Another left her flooding house but could not persuade her elderly roommate to come with her. Her roommate insisted, "God will take care of me."

People waded through waist-high water, looking to determine the fate of their homes. Rescue workers, who were plucking people off roofs in rescue cages, reported seeing bodies floating through the water. Mayor Nagin said that as he flew over the city he saw bubbles in the water, which he said seemed to signify natural gas leaks.

Parishes east of the city were also battered. The president of Plaquemines Parish, on the southeastern tip of Louisiana, announced that the lower half of the parish had been reclaimed by the river. St. Bernard Parish, adjacent to New Orleans, was largely rooftops and water.

In South Diamondhead, Miss., on St. Louis Bay, all that remained of the entire community of 200 homes was pilings. Boats were stuck in trees.

"Yeah, we caught it," said Randy Keel, 46. "We basically got what we're wearing."

Everyone was "walking around like zombies," Mr. Keel said.

Some Mississippi casinos, which had been floating on barges, were swept half a mile inland. An oil platform in the gulf was transported within a hundred yards of Dauphin Island, the barrier island at the south end of Mobile County, Ala., and much of that island was underwater.

Peter Teahen, the national spokesman for the American Red Cross, said: "We are looking now at a disaster above any magnitude that we've seen in the United States. We've been saying that the response is going to be the largest Red Cross response in the history of the organization."

Meanwhile, the evacuated survivors tried to accept the images they saw on television. Vonda Simmons, 39, fled New Orleans with relatives on Saturday afternoon to stay with friends in Baton Rouge. When she saw footage of the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, where she lived, she assumed she had lost everything but she accepted fate's hand.

"We have the most prized possession," Ms. Simmons said. "We have each other."

Joseph B. Treaster reported from New Orleans for this article, and Maria Newman from New York. Reporting was also contributed by Abby Goodnough, Kate Zernike and Shaila Dewan from Biloxi, Miss; Felicity Barringer from Houma, La.; Ralph Blumenthal from New Orleans; N. R. Kleinfield and Michael Luo from New York; Jeremy Alford from Baton Rouge, La.; and Diane Allen from South Diamondhead, Miss.

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