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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

CNN.com - U.S. declares health emergency - Aug 31, 2005

CNN.com - U.S. declares health emergency - Aug 31, 2005U.S. declares health emergency
New Orleans mayor: Thousands may be dead

(CNN) -- The Bush administration declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf Coast on Wednesday in an effort to stop the spread of disease in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"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," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Wednesday after announcing the emergency.

"We are also erecting a network of up to 40 medical shelters," Leavitt said. "They will have the capacity, collectively, of 10,000 beds, and will be staffed by some 4,000 qualified medical personnel." (See the video report of what health assaults the city might face -- 2:18)

Leavitt said the declaration would simplify and speed the relief effort.

Meanwhile, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin reportedly said Wednesday that the storm probably killed thousands of people in his city.

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and others dead in attics, The Associated Press quoted Nagin as saying. When asked how many, he reportedly said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."

Nagin and other Louisiana officials had refused to give a casualty count in the past, saying emergency workers were focusing on the rescue effort.

Earlier, an emergency official in Mississippi said the death toll was as high as 110 in that state.

In New Orleans, authorities prepared Wednesday to evacuate about 25,000 displaced residents who've been stranded since Katrina struck and transport them to the Houston Astrodome. Texas officials offered to open the giant stadium as a shelter for people displaced by the storm. (See the video of the governor's plan to help the stranded -- 3:09)

Most have been staying at the Louisiana Superdome, which was designated as a refuge for people who could not evacuate the city before the storm roared ashore on Monday.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco told CNN Wednesday morning that conditions were deteriorating rapidly at the Superdome, as evacuees sweltered without power for air conditioning and toilets overflowed.

Electricity was out for more than 2.3 million people in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.

Meanwhile, Katrina's effect on oil supplies and gas prices spread nationwide. Katrina forced operators to close more than a tenth of the country's refining capacity and a quarter of its oil production, which sent gasoline prices surging and prompted the White House to tap the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. (Watch the video of the energy secretary's comments on capping gas prices -- 4:16)

But some analysts say that gas prices are still likely to climb to more than $4 a gallon. (Full story)

Blanco said that officials were facing enormous challenges as they tried to stabilize the situation in New Orleans. (See the video of water surging into the saturated city -- 1:53)

"We've got an engineering nightmare trying to fill the breach of the levee where the waters are pouring into the city," she said.

The floodwaters also overwhelmed pumping stations that would normally keep the city dry. About 80 percent of the city was flooded with water up to 20 feet deep after the two levees collapsed. (Map)

The Army Corps of Engineers is bringing in heavy, twin-rotored Chinook helicopters to drop 3,000-pound sandbags into the gap, officials said.

Across Lake Pontchartrain, in Slidell, Louisiana, Mayor Ben Morris is among thousands of homeless residents who have been unable to communicate with anyone outside Slidell.

"I really don't know where my wife is or children are," he told CNN's Miles O'Brien. "They left town which, thank God, they did, but there's no way -- our telephones don't work, our cell phones don't work -- so there's no way to talk to the outside world." (Watch video of Slidell's mayor touring his town -- 2:06)
Troops 'cutting their way to the coast'

In Mississippi, where fallen trees blocked many highways, about 3,000 members of the National Guard were "using chainsaws to cut their way in to the coast," said Brad Mayo, a public information officer for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA).

Eighteen urban search-and-rescue crews made up of FEMA teams and crews from other states are heading to the coastal region, Mayo said, along with 39 medical disaster teams, four veterinary disaster teams and two mental health teams.

Some areas were still inaccessible by road, Mayo said, and crews were using boats to get around.

Wednesday, state officials reopened U.S. Highway 49 from Jackson to Seminary, Mississippi, just north of Hattiesburg. That should help the 1,700 trucks bringing in ice, food, water, fuel and medical supplies to the affected areas. "We're shipping ice in from Memphis," Mayo said.

An emergency official in Jackson told CNN on Wednesday the death toll there is as many as 110.

The official said the confirmed death toll -- deaths certified by a coroner -- stands at 13, but in Harrison County alone officials said they had at least 100 bodies.

In the hardest hit areas in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, emergency officials are setting up M*A*S*H-style hospitals in tents and portable structures to try to help those injured or rescued.

Mayo said the state is asking for doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians from neighboring states for their help. Those who want to assist should contact their state's licensing board, which should then get in touch with Mississippi's board for accreditation.
Other developments

* New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport is open and operational for relief flights, but operations will "be very, very restricted air service for the weeks to come," aviation director Roy Williams said. "I would hope that by the November time frame that some level of the traditional hospitality, tourism and business activities that we're known for can be under way."

* One of two pipeline companies supplying gasoline to the eastern seaboard of the United States said Wednesday it hopes to be back in partial operation soon. The other pipeline is still waiting for an indication on when electricity to pumps can be restored.

* The U.S. Navy was dispatching ships to the area, including the USNS Comfort, a floating hospital based in Baltimore, and an amphibious ready group led by the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima.

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