Wed, Sep 07, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Horror awaits the draining of New Orleans

WAKE-UP CALL There was some progress in rescue operations and the huge task of pumping water from the city, but anger grew over official handling of the disaster


Leonard Thomas, 23, cries after a SWAT team burst into his family's flooded home on Monday. Neighbors had reported that they were squatting in the house in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but the authorities left after his family proved they owned the house.


The floodwaters that caused so much misery and death in New Orleans were being pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain yesterday and authorities braced for what the receding deluge would reveal.

The US Army Corps of Engineers began pumping water out of the flooded city after closing a major gap in a key levee that burst during Hurricane Katrina, flooding 80 percent of the bowl-shaped city.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said it would take three weeks to clear the water and another few weeks to clear debris. It could also take up to eight weeks to get electricity back on.

"I've gone from anger to despair to seeing us turn the corner," Nagin said on NBC's Today program.

Still, he warned that what awaits authorities below the toxic muck would be gruesome.

"It's going to be awful and it's going to wake the nation up again," he said.

Efforts to evacuate holdouts were stepping up on Monday, with boat rescue crews and a caravan of law enforcement vehicles from around the country searching for people to rescue.

"In some cases, it's real easy. They're sitting on the porch with their bags packed," said Joe Youdell of the Kentucky Air National Guard. "But some don't want to leave and we can't force them."

In neighboring St. Bernard Parish, officials expressed frustration that federal aid, slow to reach New Orleans, was even slower to get to outlying areas.

"This is Day Eight, guys. Everything was diverted first to New Orleans, we understand that. But do you realize we got 18 feet to 20 feet [5.5m to 6m] of water from the storm, and we've still got seven to eight feet of water?" said Ron Silva, a district fire chief. "If you had dropped a bomb on this place, it couldn't be any worse than this."

In addition to help from other Louisiana and Alabama departments, a Canadian task force of firefighters and police arrived four days after the storm, St. Bernard fire chief Thomas Stone said.

"If you can get a Canadian team here in four days, US teams should be here faster than that," Stone said.

Pointing to two large oil refineries, he added: "When they're paying US$5 to US$6 a gallon for gas, they're going to realize what this place means to America."

Frustrations were also being felt along the Mississippi coast, where people who chose to stay or are stuck in demolished neighborhoods scavenge for basics each day.

Some say they will stay to rebuild their communities, others say they would leave if they could get a ride or find some gasoline, but all agree that -- with no water or power available, probably for months -- they need more help from the government just to survive.

"I have been all over the world. I've been in a lot of Third World countries where people were better off than the people here are right now," retired Air Force Captain William Bissell said on Monday. "We've got 28 miles [45km] of coastline here that's absolutely destroyed, and the federal government, they're not here."

The Air Force late on Monday concluded its massive airlift of elderly and serious ill patients from New Orleans' major airport. A total of 9,788 patients and other evacuees were airlifted from the New Orleans area.

The scope of the misery inflicted by Katrina was evident as US President George W. Bush visited Baton Rouge and Poplarville, Mississippi, his second inspection tour by ground.

"Mississippi is a part of the future of this country and part of that future is to help you get back up on your feet," Bush told 200 local officials.

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