Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Much of Gulf Coast Is Crippled; Death Toll Rises After Hurricane - New York TimesAugust 31, 2005
Much of Gulf Coast Is Crippled; Death Toll Rises After Hurricane
By JOSEPH B. TREASTER and N. R. KLEINFIELD
NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 30 - A day after New Orleans thought it had narrowly escaped the worst of Hurricane Katrina's wrath, water broke through two levees on Tuesday and virtually submerged and isolated the city, causing incalculable destruction and rendering it uninhabitable for weeks to come.
With bridges washed out, highways converted into canals, and power and communications lines inoperable, government officials ordered everyone still remaining out of the city. Officials began planning for the evacuation of the Superdome, where about 10,000 refugees huddled in increasingly grim conditions as water and food were running out and rising water threatened the generators.
The situation was so dire that late in the day the Pentagon ordered five Navy ships and eight Navy maritime rescue teams to the Gulf Coast to bolster relief operations. It also planned to fly in Swift boat rescue teams from California.
As rising water and widespread devastation hobbled rescue and recovery efforts, the authorities could only guess at the death toll in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast. In Mississippi alone, 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, describing parts of Harrison County, Miss.
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.
As the sweep of the devastation became clear, President Bush cut short his monthlong summer vacation on Tuesday and returned to Washington, where he will meet on Wednesday with a task force established to coordinate the efforts of 14 federal agencies that will be involved in responding to the disaster.
The scope of the catastrophe caught New Orleans by surprise. A certain sense of relief that was felt on Monday afternoon, after the eye of the storm swept east of the city, proved cruelly illusory, as the authorities and residents woke up Tuesday to a more horrifying result than had been anticipated. Mayor Ray Nagin lamented that while the city had dodged the worst-case scenario on Monday. Tuesday was "the second-worst-case scenario."
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. New Orleans, with a population of nearly 500,000, is protected from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain by levees. North of downtown, breaches in the levees sent the muddy waters of the lake pouring into the city.
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. The mayor said both city airports were underwater.
Mayor Nagin said that one of the levee breaches was two to three blocks long, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been dropping 3,000-pound sandbags into the opening from helicopters, as well as sea-land containers with sand, to try to seal the break. Late Tuesday night, there were reports that the rising waters had caused a nearby station that pumps water out of the city to fail.
New Orleans is below sea level, and the mayor estimated that 80 percent of the city was submerged, with the waters running as deep as 20 feet in some places. The city government regrouped in Baton Rouge, 80 miles to the northwest.
Col. Terry Ebbert, the city's director of homeland security, said the rushing waters had widened one of the breaches, making the repair work more difficult.
While the bulk of New Orleans's population evacuated before the storm, tens of thousands of people chose to remain in the city, and efforts to evacuate them were continuing. The authorities estimated that thousands of residents had been plucked off rooftops, just feet from the rising water.
"The magnitude of the situation is untenable," said Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana. "It's just heartbreaking."
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," Colonel Ebbert said. "These are large groups of armed individuals."
Officials at the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security confirmed that officials in Plaquemines and Jefferson Parishes had tried to call for martial law, which is not authorized by the State Constitution.
Offering up howling winds of as much as 145 miles an hour, the hurricane hit land in eastern Louisiana just after 6 a.m. Monday as a Category 4 storm, the second-highest rating, qualifying it as one of the strongest to strike the United States.
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.
Floodwaters were still rising as much as three inches an hour in parts of New Orleans late Tuesday. In other areas, they were beginning to subside.
"I don't want to alarm anyone that New Orleans is filling up like a bowl," Michael Brown, FEMA's director, said. "That isn't happening."
More than 10,000 people remained stranded in the Louisiana Superdome, which was without power and surrounded by three to four feet of water. Swaths of the roof had been peeled away by the powerful winds, and it was stifling inside without air conditioning. Toilets were reported to be overflowing. A woman with an 18-month-old baby said her last bottle of baby formula was nearly empty.
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. Hundreds of critically-ill patients had to be evacuated out of 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 Times-Picayune, which was able to publish only an online version of its edition on Tuesday, was forced to flee the paper's offices.
The Coast Guard estimated that about 1,200 people had been rescued Monday and thousands more on Tuesday. Efforts were hindered by phone and cellphone service being out in much of the city.
Getting food and 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," said Michael Chertoff, the national homeland security secretary. "We're racing the clock in terms of illness, and we're racing the clock to get them food and water."
The hurricane, downgraded to a tropical depression by late Tuesday morning, continued to putter along into adjoining states, though its teeth were gone. It had left its mark on numerous Gulf Coast communities. In Mississippi, for example, Gulfport was virtually gone, and Biloxi was severely damaged.
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.
The mayor estimated it would be one to two weeks before the water could be pumped out, and two to four weeks before evacuees could be permitted back into the city. Another city official said it would be two months before the schools reopened.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to need temporary homes for uncertain durations. The authorities were looking at renting apartments, putting people up in trailers and establishing floating dormitories.
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 N. R. Kleinfeld from New York. Reportingwas also contributed by Abby Goodnough, Kate Zernike and Shaila Dewan from Biloxi, Miss; Felicity Barringer from Houma, La.; Ralph Blumenthal from New Orleans; Michael Luo from New York; Jeremy Alford from Baton Rouge, La.; and Diane Allen from South Diamondhead, Miss.