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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Bush Pledges More Troops as Evacuation Grows - New York Times

Bush Pledges More Troops as Evacuation Grows - New York TimesSeptember 4, 2005
Bush Pledges More Troops as Evacuation Grows
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN

The pace of evacuations in New Orleans picked up markedly yesterday, and President Bush said that he had ordered 7,000 additional troops to the city and the Gulf Coast states to crack down on lawlessness and to evacuate thousands of refugees.

Most of the hurricane survivors have been cleared from the New Orleans Superdome and the convention center, where they huddled in squalor and chaos for days. At least 19,000 have been reported evacuated from the area, with thousands bused to Texas.

Caravans of buses that for thousands meant deliverance from danger, hunger and misery were finally rolling in, and thousands more, including 100 New York City buses accompanied by New York police officers, were on the way.

But new problems are beginning to emerge. More than 220,000 hurricane refugees are already in Texas and thousands more are coming. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said yesterday that local officials were reporting "they are quickly approaching capacity in the number of evacuees they believe they can assist."

With the stranded still being brought out of New Orleans on stretchers and by air, bus and train, the president acknowledged again yesterday that his administration had failed to help many of the hurricane's most desperate victims promptly and promised to resurrect New Orleans and devastated coastal areas of several states.

"I know that those of you who have been hit hard by Katrina are suffering," Mr. Bush declared hours after signing a $10.5 billion package of assistance for the stricken region, which he called a down payment on aid to come. "Many are angry and desperate for help. The tasks before us are enormous, but so is the heart of America. In America, we do not abandon our fellow citizens in our hour of need. And the federal government will do its part."

While the number of dead is unknown, expanded search and rescue effort brought new glimpses of the likely death toll, with bodies set out in makeshift morgues, abandoned on roads or floating in canals. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana said she expected the death toll to reach thousands. Rear Adm. W. Craig Vanderwagen of the federal Public Health Service said just one morgue, at a St. Gabriel prison, was expecting as many as to 2,000 bodies.

The authorities told of a huge toll in Chalmette, a small community east of New Orleans, where 31 bodies were found in a nursing home and hundreds more residents were missing.

The refugee emergency is beginning to affect neighboring states, Texas most of all. About 18,500 refugees were in the Houston Astrodome and an adjacent building, amid reports that it was at capacity. More than 120,000 refugees were in 97 shelters in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and other cities, according to Governor Perry's office, with an additional 100,000 in hotels and motels.

The American Red Cross reported Saturday night that it was housing more than 96,000 refugees in nine states. Louisiana had more than 51,000 refugees in 127 Red Cross shelters; Mississippi had more than 13,000 in 102 shelters; and Alabama had nearly 4,000 in 47 shelters.

Hundreds of newly arrived National Guard troops patrolled the lawless streets of New Orleans yesterday, beginning the task of wresting control from thugs and looters and restoring order in a city that had all but surrendered to death and disorder after Hurricane Katrina. Their numbers were unknown, but the head of the city's emergency services said there were only about a thousand, far fewer than needed.

The deployment of the troops, the arrival of major convoys of desperately needed supplies, the speeded evacuation of tens of thousands of people from refugee centers and hospitals, and progress in closing some of the breached levees brought glimmers of hope for the flooded and ravaged city.

The Army Corps of Engineers said crews had closed a 300-foot gap in the 17th Street Canal levee, where the heaviest floodwaters had entered the city, and said they expected to close a second gap in another canal over the weekend. But Brig. Gen. Robert Crear said it might take months to remove all the floodwaters from the swamped city. "We're looking at anywhere from 36 to 80 days to being done," he said.

Some federal officials, including Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, planned an immediate trip to the region and President Bush scheduled another trip to Louisiana for Monday.

Officials continued to explain their initial slow response. At a news conference, Mr. Chertoff called the hurricane and subsequent flooding, an "ultra-catastrophe" that exceeded the foresight of planners. Asked what the government's response signified about the nation's preparedness for a potential terrorist attack, Mr. Chertoff said, "If an ultra-catastrophe occurs, there's going to be some harmful fallout."

Mr. Chertoff said the war in Iraq was not hurting the Guard's ability to respond to domestic catastrophe. He said the issue was not numbers, but logistics. "These are citizen soldiers, we have to get them mobilized and deployed," he said.

While thousands of refugees were evacuated from the New Orleans convention center, chaos continued at the airport, thousands were still trapped in homes and hotels, fires raged virtually unchecked in parts of the city, the power was out, and vast sections were still under water.

Those who were newly rescued came with tales of endurance and loss. Waiting for evacuation at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, Kevin Davis, 34, said he had been stranded on a bridge since Tuesday with 30 others. When a helicopter sought Friday to extricate his wife, Donies, she slipped out of the harness and fell back to the bridge where she was unconscious and bleeding, he said. Another helicopter took her away a half hour later but left Mr. Davis behind.

"Nobody can tell me anything about my wife," he said, as he waited to be flown out of New Orleans.

On streets where gun battles, fistfights, holdups, carjackings and marauding mobs of looters had held sway through the week, the mere sight of troops in camouflage battle gear and with assault rifles gave a sense of relief to many of the thousands of stranded survivors who had endured days of appalling terror and suffering.

"They brought a sense of order and peace, and it was a beautiful sight to see that we're ramping up," Governor Blanco said. "We are seeing a show of force. It's putting confidence back in our hearts and in the minds of our people. We're going to make it through."

Still officials cautioned that New Orleans faced a long, difficult climb out of the crisis. Six days after the hurricane decimated the Gulf Coast in a fantasia of howling winds and towering seas that weakened and then breached the city's protective levees, New Orleans was still a nightmarish town that had endured the unthinkable: 80 percent of its ground flooded, perhaps thousands of its citizens killed and numberless homes and businesses destroyed by water, fires, looters and scavengers.

The shocking discovery of a large number of victims in Chalmette added a chilling new dimension to the scope of the disaster. While national attention has focused primarily on the tragedy of New Orleans, officials said almost no notice had been given to scores of outlying communities that were even more exposed to the storm's wrath - towns isolated on the peninsulas of the bird's foot delta reaching into the Gulf of Mexico.

At dawn yesterday, as a brilliant orange sun rose over the Mississippi, two huge columns of smoke climbed over the city as major fires burned unchecked, one apparently at the scene of an explosion that ripped through a propane gas storage warehouse on Friday, and another at a Saks Fifth Avenue store. Firefighters were handicapped by low water pressure and the difficulty of getting around the flooded city.

There was no electricity in the city, and almost every office and store was closed. Bodies still floated in the floodwaters, and everywhere were signs of recent disorder: shattered storefronts, the detritus of looting that showed help had come too late. There was no water or food for sale, and no one had any idea how many people were still in New Orleans. A police officer making rescues in a boat said several people in homes five feet deep in water had turned him away, saying they had plenty of food, water and beer.

The streets downtown were nearly deserted yesterday morning. Here and there, people pushed shopping carts, carried bags or dragged suitcases filled with their remaining possessions. Troops were on patrol outside City Hall, at the federal buildings, at refugee centers and at major intersections, and there were only glimpses of the hoodlums who had ruled unchecked for days.

Superintendent P. Edward Compass III of the Police Department said 200 of the 1,500 officers on his force had walked off the job, citing the perils of fighting armed and menacing refugees, and he reported that two officers had committed suicide.

While the sound of gunfire had been common in the streets of New Orleans for much of the week, it seemed to taper off. Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said much of the earlier violence had been by youths with guns.

"Some of these kids think this is a game," he said. "They somehow got their hands on a weapon. They think they are playing Pac-Man or something and shooting at people. Those kinds of hot spots will continue, but I can tell you they will learn very quickly the 82nd Airborne does not like to be shot at. This is not a game."

The absence of any widespread disorder was only one of the positive signs. In addition to the arrival of hundreds of National Guard troops to the region, which coincided with President Bush's visit on Friday, there were other signs of hope.

The evacuations of Tulane University and Charity Hospitals were completed, officials said, but three other hospitals remained open. The evacuation of the Louisiana Superdome, which had become a fetid shelter of last resort for 25,000 people, was all but completed, with many of its refugees taken to the Astrodome in Houston, 350 miles away.

Progress was made in repairing breached levees that had allowed the waters of Lake Pontchartrain to flood the below-sea-level city. Three breaks occurred in canals that jut into New Orleans from the lakefront. The mouths of each of the canals have been closed, and engineers and contractors have begun to drain the canals to get at powerful pumps that will be used to clear water from the city. They also have begun to reconstruct the levee itself, driving piles into the 300-foot gap.

Amtrak made its first run out of New Orleans since the hurricane, carrying 650 people to Dallas.

Convoys of trucks carrying food, water and other relief supplies rolled into the city and were greeted by cheers and sobs of relief by some of the exhausted, traumatized refugees. Others, like 46-year-old Michael Levy, one of the refugees at the convention center, were bitter. "They should have been here days ago," he said as others yelled in agreement.

Elisabeth Bumiller and Eric Lipton contributed reporting from Washington for this article, Joseph B. Treaster from New Orleans and Campbell Robertson from Gulfport, Miss.

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