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Saturday, September 03, 2005

Conditions in New Orleans Still Dire - Pumping May Take Months - New York Times

Conditions in New Orleans Still Dire - Pumping May Take Months - New York TimesSeptember 3, 2005
Conditions in New Orleans Still Dire - Pumping May Take Months
By JAMES DAO and N. R. KLEINFIELD

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 2 - Military vehicles bearing food and supplies sloshed into the drenched heart of this humbled and stricken city on Friday, while commercial airplanes and cargo planes arrived to lift beleaguered hurricane survivors from the depths of a ghastly horror.

Five days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, the chaotic scene at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport evoked the mix of hope and despair that has gripped this city. Disorder prevailed, as thousands of survivors with glazed looks and nothing more than garbage bags of possessions waited in interminable lines for a chance to get out.

Patrolmen yelled out the number of available seats on each flight, and passengers boarded planes not knowing where they would land, and not caring. An increasing number of cities and states across the country were offering to take them in.

The airport was a stark landscape of triage, with rows of people on stretchers and others bound to wheelchairs, including someone already dead, in a wing that had been converted into the world's largest emergency room. A morgue had been set up in one concourse.

The fresh wave of relief efforts came on a day when President Bush toured the ravaged region by helicopter and walked through the residue of Biloxi, Miss., before ending up in New Orleans, where he told survivors, "I'm going to fly out of here in a minute, but I want you to know that I'm not going to forget what I've seen."

Scores of amphibious vehicles and Humvees carrying thousands of newly dispatched armed National Guardsmen pushed through New Orleans in a daylong parade, hoping to replenish the dire needs of the stranded and to try to restore order to a city that had devolved into wantonness. In one sign of the boundless despair, police officials acknowledged that some New Orleans officers had turned in their badges, refusing to risk their lives to try to right the city.

Another new ingredient was a spate of fires that broke out and were left to burn, because hydrants were not working and firefighters had no way to get to the blazes in the water-soaked city.

Dan Craig, director of recovery for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, estimated that it could take six months to drain the city and another three months to dry it. State officials said that it would take more than a month, and that pumping would begin on Monday.

In a city too bruised to know what to feel, many of the famished survivors applauded the arrival of the relief trucks, though others, enraged at how long their wait had been, showered them with profanities.

A critical juncture was reached when the overwhelmed Superdome, the site of unimaginably squalid conditions, was mostly emptied by day's end. Thousands of other survivors, though, remained stranded in the putrid convention center. Others were said to remain perched on roofs, even this long after the storm.

No one could convincingly say when the last of the living would be removed from the city, though state officials said they hoped to complete the process by Sunday. Dead bodies continued to present themselves at every turn. Medical authorities said 8 to 10 people an hour were dying at the city's hospitals.

The supply convoy showed up just hours after Mayor C. Ray Nagin exploded in a radio interview on Thursday night, castigating the federal government, particularly FEMA, for what he felt was a lame and puny response to his city's needs.

By Friday, about 19,500 National Guard troops had arrived in Louisiana and Mississippi, and 6,500 in New Orleans itself, mostly military police officers, though Mr. Nagin maintained that was still not enough.

Senior Pentagon and military officials said the Guard presence in the hurricane zone would grow to 30,000 in coming days, mostly in Louisiana and Mississippi, with the rest going to Alabama and Florida.

The guardsmen were posted at major intersections, and Army vehicles patrolled the streets, seeking to quell the looting and unrestrained crime that has shocked the nation. Some 300 members of the Arkansas National Guard, just back from Iraq, were among those deployed from foreign assignments specifically to bring order.

"I have one message for these hoodlums," said Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary."

In the radio interview, Mayor Nagin blamed much of the widespread crime on crazed drug addicts cut off from their fixes.

Lt. Gov. Steven Blum said in Baton Rouge, the capital, "I am confident that within the next 24 hours we will see a dramatic improvement."

Buses continued to wheel out of the city loaded with refugees from the Superdome and from around the convention center, the two principal shelters for those left behind, moving them to new, makeshift lives in the Houston Astrodome and other far-flung evacuation quarters like Reunion Arena in Dallas and a warehouse at KellyUSA, a city-owned complex in San Antonio.

One evacuation bus carrying 50 people to Texas overturned on Interstate 49, near Opelousas, the police said, killing one person and injuring 17 others.

Admissions to the Astrodome were halted after about 11,000 people had been accepted, fewer than half of what was planned, because officials felt it had become crowded enough.

The Superdome, where upward of 25,000 people had sweltered in conditions described as unfit for animals, was mostly emptied, though 1,500 were still there late Friday. They had renamed the place, rife with overflowing toilets and reports of murder and rape, the Sewerdome.

Edgar John Thead, 68, who sat with his 65-year-old wife, said he had been in line for the buses at 4 a.m., but had to withdraw because his diabetic wife could not stand the heat. "I'll be the last one in line," he said.

Throughout New Orleans, thousands of people, many of them among the city's poorest and most marginalized residents, were still unsure when and how they would get out.

An estimated 20,000 were said to be at the four-story convention center, which at some points apparently attracted as many refugees as the Superdome but was ignored much longer by rescue operations. Conditions there were even worse than at the Superdome, with armed thugs seizing control and, the authorities said, repulsing squads of police officers sent to retake it.

On Friday morning, people huddled in small groups inside the center or sat on orange folding chairs outside, a gruesome mockery of an actual convention. Amid overflowing toilets, an elderly women and a teenage boy were having seizures in the arms of relatives.

Evacuees said that seven dead bodies littered the third floor. They said a 14-year-old girl had been raped.

There was a pervasive feeling of abandonment. "The trucks kept passing us up; they just kept going further east," said Louis Martin Sr., a truck driver who had been at the center since Tuesday.

In the afternoon, P. Edwin Compass III, the superintendent of police, drove by on the running board of a van and shouted that food and buses were on the way. Some people responded with soft applause, while others jeered. A woman ran alongside the van, shrieking: "We don't need food! Get us out of here!"

Throughout the city, where it was dry enough, people wandered in dazes. Along St. Charles Avenue, clumps of people trudged with plastic bags of belongings. Some had fled the violence of the convention center. Others searched for vans.

Outside the Hyatt hotel next to the Superdome, scores of tour buses in ankle-deep water waited to evacuate people who had been living in and around the stadium. "It's been hell," said Donnieka Rhinehart, 26, a nursing assistant who said she had lived in the stadium with her two small children since Monday. She said she saw a rape and heard that a girl's throat had been cut.

The quickest way out of the city on Friday seemed to be the airport, after government officials arranged for more than a dozen airlines and cargo operators to volunteer planes to fly people to safety. But the lines never seemed to diminish. As soon as one flight took off, seven or eight helicopters would land on the tarmac with additional batches of survivors.

Airport authorities did not know where the helicopters came from. "Helicopters just appear," said Carolyn Lowe, a deputy director of the airport.

Other cities and states continued to extend interim refuge and other forms of aid for the affected areas. Philadelphia announced that it was willing to take in a thousand families from New Orleans, and Detroit offered refuge as well. New York, Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, Georgia, California, Utah, Virginia and Washington were among other states offering to provide general support or take refugees. Some states promised to allow children of evacuees to enroll in their schools.

During his tour of the area, President Bush kissed two weeping women who said they had lost everything in Biloxi, and he then walked down the street with his arms around them.

Speaking about the rescue and relief efforts before leaving Washington, Mr. Bush acknowledged that "the results are not acceptable" and pledged to do more, saying the $10.5 billion in aid authorized by Congress was but a "down payment" on the disaster relief.

In Washington, members of the Congressional Black Caucus called the federal response shameful, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle promised hearings on what had gone wrong.

That there was much peril remaining in New Orleans was without question. Before daybreak, an explosion tore through a warehouse along the Mississippi River, a dozen blocks or so from the French Quarter. And a fire at an oil storage facility across the river sent a plume of smoke across the city.

The situation was terrifying at some of the city's hospitals for much of the day. Doctors, nurses and patients at Charity Hospital had to plead for help for more than 100 patients, who were later evacuated after violence had earlier prevented rescuers from getting in.

Six patients had died during the wait for evacuation. Staff members were still inside, and some were reportedly keeping others alive with intravenous fluids. All were evacuated by the end of the day.

Those who call New Orleans home and cherish its idiosyncratic stamp on the American landscape could only guess at what their city would look like and how broken it would be when the day came that the waters went away.

The Army Corps of Engineers kept at the repair work on the broken levees that had allowed Lake Pontchartrain to thunder into the bowl-like city after it seemed that damage from the hurricane had ceased. And after three days of delays, the Corps and a swelling army of private contractors slowly began to set the stage for draining the hundreds of billions of gallons of floodwaters from the city.

The plan was to close the holes that the storm tides had opened and break open new holes in places where the levees were holding water in the city rather than letting it out.

A train of dump trucks and a yellow bulldozer began laying a narrow, temporary road of black rubble and gravel from dry ground to the north end of the 300-foot breach in a wall of the 17th Street Canal, through which most of the floodwaters passed. At the same time, heavy-lift helicopters lowered hundreds of huge sandbags into the south end of the gap.

The height of the water in the streets and the adjoining lake had leveled off, so water was no longer rising. The authorities were hopeful that the breach could be slowly, if temporarily, blocked. At the same time, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Corps, said he was concerned about storms forming in the Atlantic.

"We want to make sure that we don't catch ourselves with levees open and have another storm front move in on us," General Strock said.

Efforts to set life right again persisted throughout the Gulf Coast, as hundreds of thousands went on without electricity, and in many cases, homes. Relatives still sought feverishly to find loved ones. The number of deaths remained unknown, with estimates continuing to run into the thousands.

Researchers who flew over 180 miles of coast between Pensacola, Fla., and Grand Isle, La., said that along the shore, for blocks inland, nothing remained but concrete slabs and chunks of asphalt. Often, they said, it was impossible to tell what had been there before the storm.

There were more and more scattered signs of the crippling economic impact. A preliminary assessment from the oyster industry, one of Louisiana's flourishing seafood businesses, found that while the western side of the state fared well, everything east of Bayou Lafourche to the Mississippi line was ruined. The area accounts for two-thirds of the state's oyster harvesting, or $181 million a year. With federal aid, officials said, it could take two to three years for the crop to return.

The frenzied pursuit of gasoline by motorists in the region did not slacken, and disruptions of routines continued. In Georgia, schools in Hancock County were closed on Thursday because of a gasoline shortage.

Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia signed an executive order temporarily halting state collection of all motor fuel taxes, effective after midnight Friday. This should reduce gas prices by about 15 cents a gallon. Mr. Perdue said he hoped to keep the moratorium in effect through September, but needed the approval of the legislature, which will convene a special session starting Tuesday.

"I believe it's wrong for the state to reap a tax windfall in this time of urgency and tragedy," Mr. Perdue said.

Other states were contemplating actions of their own. California announced that it was beginning an investigation into gasoline price gouging in the state.

Meanwhile, in scattered camps in increasingly far-flung locations, countless thousands of refugees were fumbling to understand the next steps in their lives.

Barry Mason, 54, of New Orleans traded a spot in the Superdome for a seat by the 40-yard-line in the Houston Astrodome. The Superdome was "filled with all kinds of unbelievable filth, a screaming mess," he said, but spending the night in a chair was not much better.

"This is what they brought us to?" Mr. Mason said.

James Dao reported from New Orleans for this article, and N. R. Kleinfield from New York. Reporting was also contributed by Felicity Barringer and Joseph B. Treaster in New Orleans and Jeremy Alford in Baton Rouge, La.

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