'No choice but to abandon' flooded New Orleans

Army engineers trying to plug New Orleans’s breached levees struggled to move giant sandbags and concrete barriers into place, and the state governor said on Wednesday the situation is growing more desperate and there is no choice but to abandon the flooded city.

“The challenge is an engineering nightmare,” Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said on ABC’s Good Morning America.

As the waters continue to rise in New Orleans, the Pentagon has begun mounting one of the biggest search-and-rescue operations in United States history, sending four navy ships to the Gulf Coast with drinking water and other emergency supplies, along with the hospital ship USNS Comfort, search helicopters and eight swift-water rescue teams. Red Cross workers from across the country are converging on the devastated region.

Officials are making plans to move at least 25 000 refugees from Lousiana to Texas, where they will be housed in the Houston Astrodome, a domed stadium that no longer hosts professional sporting events.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it planned to use heavy-duty Chinook helicopters to drop 1 350kg sandbags on Wednesday into the 150m gap in New Orleans’s failed flood wall. But the agency said it is having trouble getting the sandbags and dozens of highway barriers to the site because the city’s waterways are blocked by loose barges, boats and large debris.

Officials said they are also looking at a more audacious plan: finding a barge to plug the 150m hole.

The death toll from Hurricane Katrina reached at least 110 in Mississippi alone, while Louisiana put aside the counting of the dead to concentrate on rescuing the living, many of whom were still trapped on rooftops and in attics.

The Red Cross reported it had about 40 000 people in 200 shelters across the area in one of the biggest urban disasters the nation has ever seen.

A full day after New Orleans thought it had escaped Katrina’s full fury, two levees broke and spilled water into the streets on Tuesday, swamping an estimated 80% of the bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city, inundating kilometres of homes and rendering much of New Orleans uninhabitable for weeks or months.

“We are looking at 12 to 16 weeks before people can come in,” mayor Ray Nagin said on ABC’s Good Morning America, “and the other issue that’s concerning me is we have dead bodies in the water.
At some point in time, the dead bodies are going to start to create a serious disease issue.”

Evacuation plan

Blanco said she wants the Superdome—a shelter of last resort for about 20 000 people—evacuated within two days, along with other gathering points for storm refugees. The situation inside the dank and sweltering Superdome is becoming desperate: the water is rising, the air conditioning is out, toilets are broken and tempers are rising.

At the same time, sections of Interstate 10, the only major freeway leading into New Orleans from the east, lay shattered, with dozens of huge slabs of concrete floating in the floodwaters. I-10 is the only route for commercial trucking across southern Louisiana.

The sweltering city of 480 000 people—an estimated 80% of whom obeyed orders to evacuate as Katrina closed in over the weekend—also has no drinkable water, the electricity could be out for weeks and looters are ransacking stores around town.

“The logistical problems are impossible and we have to evacuate people in shelters,” the governor said. “It’s becoming untenable. There’s no power. It’s getting more difficult to get food and water supplies in, just basic essentials.”

She gave no details on exactly where the refugees will be taken. But in Houston, Rusty Cornelius, a county emergency official, said at least 25 000 of them will travel in a bus convoy to Houston starting on Wednesday and will be sheltered at the 40-year-old Astrodome. Houston and New Orleans are more than 500km apart.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is considering putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks and so-called floating dormitories—boats the agency uses to house its own employees.

Once the levees are fixed, Major General Don Riley of the Army Corps of Engineers said, it could take close to a month to get the water out of the city. If the water rises a few metres higher, it could also wipe out the water system for the whole city, said New Orleans’s homeland security chief, Terry Ebbert.

A helicopter view of the devastation over Louisiana and Mississippi revealed people standing on black rooftops, baking in the sunshine while waiting for rescue boats.

“I can only imagine that this is what Hiroshima looked like 60 years ago,” said Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour after touring the destruction by air on Tuesday.

‘It was hell’

All day long, rescuers in boats and helicopters plucked bedraggled flood refugees from rooftops and attics. Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu said 3 000 people have been rescued by boat and air, some placed shivering and wet into helicopter baskets.

They were brought by the truckload into shelters, some in wheelchairs and some carrying babies, with stories of survival and of those who didn’t make it.

“Oh my God, it was hell,” said Kioka Williams, who had to hack through the ceiling of the beauty shop where she worked as floodwaters rose in New Orleans’s low-lying Ninth Ward. “We were screaming, hollering, flashing lights. It was complete chaos.”

Looting broke out in some New Orleans neighbourhoods, prompting authorities to send more than 70 additional officers and an armed personnel carrier into the city. One police officer was shot in the head by a looter but is expected to recover, authorities said.

A giant new Wal-Mart in New Orleans was looted, and the entire gun collection was taken, The Times-Picayune newspaper reported.

“There are gangs of armed men in the city moving around the city,” said Ebbert, the city’s homeland security chief. Also, looters tried to break into Children’s hospital, the governor’s office said.

On New Orleans’s Canal Street, dozens of looters ripped open the steel gates on clothing and jewellery stores and grabbed merchandise.

In Biloxi, Mississippi, people picked through casino slot machines for coins and ransacked other businesses. In some cases, the looting took place in full view of police and National Guardsmen.

Blanco acknowledged that looting is a severe problem but said officials have to focus on survivors.

“We don’t like looters one bit, but first and foremost is search and rescue,” she said.

Death toll

Officials said it is simply too early to estimate a death toll.

One Mississippi county alone said it has suffered at least 100 deaths, and officials are “very, very worried that this is going to go a lot higher”, said Joe Spraggins, civil defence director for Harrison county, home to Biloxi and Gulfport. In neighbouring Jackson County, officials said at least 10 deaths were blamed on the storm.

Across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, more than one million residents remain without electricity, some without clean drinking water. Officials said it could be weeks, if not months, before most evacuees will be able to return.

Emergency medical teams from across the country were sent into the region and President George Bush cut short his Texas vacation on Tuesday to return to Washington to focus on the storm damage.

Also, the US government decided to release crude oil from federal petroleum reserves to help refiners whose supply was disrupted by Katrina. The announcement helped push oil prices lower.

Katrina, which was downgraded to a tropical depression, packed winds of about 50kph as it moved through the Ohio Valley early on Wednesday, with the potential to dump 20cm of rain and spin off deadly tornadoes.

The remnants of Katrina spawned bands of storms and tornadoes across Georgia that caused at least two deaths, multiple injuries and levelled dozens of buildings.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press reporters Holbrook Mohr, Mary Foster, Allen G Breed, Adam Nossiter and Jay Reeves contributed to this report

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