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Monday, September 05, 2005

New Orleans Begins a Search for Its Dead; Toll Remains Unclear - New York Times

New Orleans Begins a Search for Its Dead; Toll Remains Unclear - New York TimesSeptember 5, 2005
New Orleans Begins a Search for Its Dead; Toll Remains Unclear

Troops patrolled the streets, rescuers hunted for stragglers and New Orleans looked like a wrecked ghost town yesterday as the evacuation of the city neared completion and the authorities turned to the grim task of collecting bodies in a ghastly landscape awash in numberless corpses.

In a city riven by violence for a week, there was yet another shootout yesterday. Contractors for the Army Corps of Engineers came under fire as they crossed a bridge to work on a levee, and police escorts shot back, killing three assailants outright and a fourth in a later gunfight, the police said, adding that a fifth suspect had been wounded and captured. There was no explanation for it, only the numbing facts.

The larger picture of death was just as murky. No one could say how many had died in the hurricane or were waiting to be rescued after the city's levees burst. One morgue at the St. Gabriel Prison near New Orleans was expecting 1,000 to 2,000 bodies. Hundreds were missing in nearby Chalmette. In Baton Rouge, state officials said the official Louisiana death toll stood at 59, but most said that thousands was a more realistic figure. More than 125 were known dead in Mississippi.

"I think it's evident it's in the thousands," Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, told CNN on Sunday.

Seven days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans known as America's vibrant capital of jazz and gala Mardi Gras celebrations was gone. In its place was a partly submerged city of abandoned homes and ruined businesses, of bodies in attics or floating in deserted streets, of misery that had driven most of its nearly 500,000 residents into a diaspora of biblical proportions.

As the effects of the crisis spread across the nation, 20 states have opened their shelters, homes and schools to the refugees. But moving the population of New Orleans to other parts of the country has created overcrowding and strains. In Texas, where nearly half the refugees are jamming stadiums, civic centers and hotels, Gov. Rick Perry said the state's capacity was almost exhausted. Thousands of people were also arriving at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.

In Baton Rouge, at two places, hundreds of people, many carrying umbrellas to protect them from the scorching heat, were lined up for hours waiting for emergency food stamps and other public assistance.

There were no quick solutions. Making New Orleans habitable again was expected to take many months, even a year.

Meanwhile, there were holdouts in the city, unknown numbers of people who refused to go. They were being urged to leave for their own safety. Officials warned of an impossible future in a destroyed city without food, water, power or other necessities, only the specter of cholera, typhoid or mosquitoes carrying malaria or the West Nile virus.

As helicopter and boat crews searched flooded neighborhoods for survivors yesterday and officials focused for the first time on finding, collecting and counting the dead, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, warned that Americans must brace for some gruesome sights in the days ahead.

"We need to prepare the country for what's coming," Mr. Chertoff said on the "Fox News Sunday" television program. "We are going to uncover people who died hiding in the houses, maybe got caught in the floods. It is going to be as ugly a scene as you can imagine."

Stung by critics who say its sluggish response compounded the suffering and cost lives, the Bush administration rolled out a public relations offensive yesterday. Mr. Chertoff visited the Sunday television talk shows to give status reports and defend the government's response.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld went to the stricken states yesterday to assess the damage and pledge relief, and President Bush planned another visit to Louisiana and Mississippi today. He flew over the area on Wednesday as he returned to Washington from a vacation at his Texas ranch, and made an inspection tour on Friday.

The administration's problems in the crisis seemed to crystallize in a dramatic appearance on the NBC program "Meet the Press" by Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish near New Orleans. Sobbing, he told of an emergency management official receiving phone calls from his mother, who, trapped in a nursing home, pleaded day after day for rescue. Assured by federal officials, the man promised her repeatedly that help was on the way.

"Every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?' " Mr. Broussard said. "And he said, 'Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you.' Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday. And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night."

Mr. Broussard angrily denounced the country's leadership. "We have been abandoned by our own country," he said. "It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now."

Congress, returning from a summer recess, is widely expected to undertake investigations into the causes of and reaction to the crisis, and even some Republicans warned that the government's response, widely viewed as slow and ineffectual, could further undermine Mr. Bush's authority at a time when he is lagging in the polls, endangering his Congressional agenda.

In New Orleans, thousands of National Guard and active duty troops as well as federal marshals finally appeared to be in control of streets where looters and hooligans had run wild for days last week, unchecked by overwhelmed police officers who were focused on saving lives, not property, in the chaotic city. Fires had burned unchecked by overwhelmed firefighters.

The crisis put enormous pressure on many police officers and firefighters, pressure some could not withstand. P. Edwin Compass III, the New Orleans police superintendent, said on Saturday that 200 of the 1,500 members of his force had walked off the job and that two others had committed suicide. He said yesterday that the city had offered to send all members of the police and fire departments and their families on vacations to Las Vegas.

"When you go through something this devastating and traumatic, you've got to do something dramatic to jump-start the healing process," Mr. Compass said.

The notion of a vacation in the midst of disaster struck some as unusual. But officials likened it to an R&R break for combat troops. Military reinforcements, who arrived in the thousands over the weekend, will take over the search and rescue work temporarily, though New Orleans officials said they would remain in charge.

"We haven't turned over control of the city," said Col. Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for New Orleans. "We're going to leave a skeleton force - about 20 percent of the department - for leadership and liaison with the troops while we get some rest."

During the buildup of troops in recent days, federal, state and local officials have given often wildly disparate figures for military personnel on the ground or on the way. Mr. Bush on Saturday said there were more than 21,000 National Guard troops in Louisiana and Mississippi and 4,000 active duty forces to assist them. He ordered 7,000 more troops into New Orleans.

Colonel Ebbert put the number in the city at 1,000. Yesterday, Brig. Gen. Michael P. Fleming of the National Guard in Baton Rouge said there were 16,000 guardsmen in Louisiana.

The deployment of the troops, whatever their numbers, the arrival of tons of food and other supplies, and progress in closing the breached levees added to a sense of momentum in the stricken city over the weekend. So did stepped-up evacuation efforts. The Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans convention center, which had become fetid and dangerous refuges for as many as 50,000, were virtually emptied. Hotels, hospitals and other shelters were also evacuated.

Though the number of the dead was still unknown, a few details could be gleaned about the tragedy. Officials said nine bodies came from the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where emergency workers had set up a triage unit. Of a group of 11 bodies from the Superdome, officials said, many were ailing patients on ventilators.

New Orleans remained a city in crisis. There was still no power except that provided by generators, almost nowhere to buy food or water, no reliable transportation or communications systems, no effective firefighting forces.

There were thousands of people awaiting flights out at the airport. Officials said 3,000 to 5,000 people had been treated at the unit, and that only 200 remained. The airport director, Roy Williams, said 30 people had died, some of them elderly.

Other problems developed. Even as the city population dwindled, hundreds of new arrivals were reported to be entering from outlying towns, stragglers who had been unable to escape from their hometowns in the past week and who believed their surest way out could be found with the buses, trains and planes evacuating New Orleans.

There was no way to tell how many New Orleans residents remained in the city. Many were believed hiding in homes or apartments. Rescue teams in helicopters searched flooded neighborhoods and went out in boats and on foot to press a house-to-house search for holdouts yesterday. One helicopter crashed, but no one was injured. Many residents were found and evacuated, but what Mr. Chertoff called a significant number refused to go.

"That is not a reasonable alternative," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "We are not going to be able to have people sitting in houses in the city of New Orleans for weeks and months while we de-water and clean the city."

People like Frank Asevado III, a 37-year-old mechanic, and Travis Latapie, 44, a shrimp fisherman, both from St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, complained bitterly in interviews of being abandoned by the government after the waters engulfed their community. They told of using their boats for several days to save 300 friends and neighbors, plucking them from floodwaters and the roofs of homes and cars.

"We never see no Coast Guard, no nothing," Mr. Latapie said.

Mr. Asevado added, "The government didn't do jack."

Aid from around the country continued to move toward the stricken region. New York City, which dispatched 100 city buses and 172 police officers to New Orleans on Saturday, decided yesterday to send 150 more officers and 300 firefighters today. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg noted that Louisiana had been among the many states that helped New York after Sept. 11.

"We understand that we have an obligation, and we're happy to do it," the mayor said.

In the midst of misery in New Orleans, there were lingering signs of a fading vivacity. About two dozen people gathered in the French Quarter for an annual Labor Day gay celebration, the Decadence Parade. Matt Menold, 23, a street musician wearing a sombrero and a guitar, explained: "It's New Orleans, man. We're going to celebrate."

But the tragedy of New Orleans was more vividly represented in the Garden District, a business area dotted with antique shops. At the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street, a woman's body had been on the sidewalk since Wednesday. People had covered her with blankets and plastic, and by yesterday a small wall of bricks had been erected around the corpse to hold down a tarpaulin to cloak her.

On it, someone had spray-painted a cross and an epitaph: "Here lies Vera. God help us."

Reporting for this article was contributed by Jeremy Alford, Sewell Chan and Michael Luo from Baton Rouge, La., and John DeSantis, Christopher Drew and Joseph B. Treaster from New Orleans.

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