Katrina: 'Now we're getting to the hard part'

Rescuers have plucked tens of thousands of terrified residents from the rooftops of their homes in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, capturing what may be the bulk of the survivors in readily visible locations. Now the more difficult door-to-door scouring begins, and it could take weeks, if not months.

“I would like to believe that we are on the back side of this tremendous hump,” air force Major General Marvin “Scott” Mayes, commander of the Pentagon’s air mobility command operating in the hurricane ravaged region said on Sunday.

“But now comes the grunt work of the search and rescue, now we’re getting to the hard part. It will go on for some time.”

Mayes, in a telephone interview, said the military is now going door-to-door, by foot or by boat, in many of the harder to reach sections of New Orleans and more remote areas of Mississippi and the region.
And he said he hopes it won’t take months.

Rescuers will “now have to find the people who have hunkered down,” he said, in what he called a continuing rescue mission—not yet simply a recovery of bodies.

Mayes, who is based at Tyndall air force base in Florida, said air force units have evacuated more than 3 000 patients out of New Orleans International airport—mostly on stretchers. He said crews also have shuttled more than 15 000 people out of the swamped region and flown in more than 4 600 tonnes of supplies.

Four major airports in Louisiana and Mississippi are open for military and other relief flights. But Mayes said it is far too early to tell when any of the commercial airports would be able to open for regular traffic.

Keesler air force base in Biloxi, Mississippi, was severely damaged by the storm, but the airfield is open and repairs are being done so that the families of military members who lost their homes can stay on the base.

The air force has announced it will send 300 airmen, who are based at Keesler, home from Iraq and Afghanistan in the next two weeks, and nearly 100 more who were scheduled to leave Keesler for war duty will be staying home.

Rare request for help

European Union nations on Monday prepared aid teams, food rations, water pumps and other emergency material for transport to hurricane-hit regions.

The executive European Commission said further pledges of aid had come in Sunday, including promises to ship power generators, cots, tents and first aid kits.

It added that an EU aid coordinator would go to the US shortly to help with the logistics to ensure aid got to victims of Katrina in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

US authorities made a rare request for help from Europe over the weekend, asking for anything from diapers and baby formula to forklifts and veterinarian supplies to speed up aid efforts.

A team of 10 Belgian aid experts were leaving for Louisiana and Alabama on Monday. The Nato alliance has also started to coordinate food aid shipments, drinking water, generators, and tarpaulins through its disaster coordination centre.

The US thanked its European allies in the 26-nation alliance for their solidarity.

“The United States has been enormously grateful for the outpouring of support both emotional and concrete from allies over the past week,” said Victoria Nuland, the US ambassador to Nato.

“We have had specific offers from almost every ally.”

The alliance has also sent a liaison officer to Washington to work with US authorities in assessing their needs.

“This again proves the effectiveness and reliability of this alliance and its value to the American people,” Nuland told reporters.

EU nations big and small were contributing aid or expertise. Germany and Britain had already sent 570 000 emergency food rations over the weekend, while tiny Luxembourg was preparing to send a team of five aid experts, two jeeps and 1 000 camp bends and 2 000 blankets. The Netherlands had deployed its naval frigate Van Amstel, which was transporting fresh drinking water, medical supplies and much needed helicopters.

Romania, not yet a member of the EU, was also sending two teams of medical experts.

So far, EU members Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Finland, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Spain and The Netherlands have pledged aid. They are among dozens of countries from around the world that have offered to help.

Hillary Clionton calls for ‘Katrina commission’

US Senator Hillary Clinton has urged President George Bush to set up a “Katrina commission” to probe the government’s response to the killer hurricane.

In a letter sent to the president on Sunday, the wife of former president Bill Clinton said the panel should be fashioned after the 9/11 commission that investigated the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

“It has become increasingly evident that our nation was not prepared,” Clinton said in the letter.

She added that the slow pace of relief efforts “seems to confirm that our ability to respond to cataclysmic disasters has not been adequately addressed.”

Clinton said she also planned to propose legislation to separate the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security and convert it into a Cabinet-level agency.

Sean Penn founders in floodwaters

Efforts by Hollywood actor Sean Penn to aid New Orleans victims foundered badly on Sunday, when the boat he was piloting to launch a rescue attempt sprang a leak.

Penn had planned to rescue children waylaid by Katrina’s floodwaters, but apparently forgot to plug a hole in the bottom of the vessel, which began taking water within seconds of its launch.

The actor, known for his political activism, was seen wearing what appeared to be a white flak jacket and frantically bailing water out of the sinking vessel with a red plastic cup.

When the boat’s motor failed to start, those aboard were forced to use paddles to propel themselves down the flooded New Orleans street.

Asked what he had hoped to achieve in the waterlogged city, the actor replied: “Whatever I can do to help.”

With the boat loaded with members of Penn’s entourage, including a personal photographer, one bystander taunted the actor: “How are you going to get any people in that thing?” - Sapa-AP, Sapa-AFP

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