Thousands of people are probably dead in flooded-out New Orleans, mayor says
06:33 PM EDT Aug 31
NEW ORLEANS (CP) - Katrina probably killed thousands of people in New Orleans, said Mayor Ray Nagin; an estimate that, if accurate, would make the storm by far the country's deadliest hurricane in more than a century.
"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and other people dead in attics, Nagin said. Asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."
The frightening estimate came as army engineers struggled to plug New Orleans' breached levees with giant sandbags and concrete barriers, while authorities drew up plans to clear out the tens of thousands of people left in the Big Easy and all but abandon the flooded-out city.
There will be a "total evacuation of the city. We have to. The city will not be functional for two or three months," Nagin said.
Most of those storm refugees - 15,000 to 20,000 people - were in the Superdome, which had become hot and stuffy, with broken toilets and nowhere for anyone to bathe. "It can no longer operate as a shelter of last resort," the mayor said.
Nagin estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people remained in New Orleans, a city of nearly half a million people. He said 14,000 to 15,000 a day could be evacuated.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, began mounting one of the largest search-rescue operations in U.S. 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 elite SEAL water-rescue teams. American Red Cross workers from across the country converged on the devastated region in the agency's biggest-ever relief operation.
Canadian politicians and health authorities have offered to send emergency medical supplies to help relief efforts.
The death toll from hurricane Katrina has reached at least 110 in Mississippi alone. But the full magnitude of the disaster had been unclear for days; Louisiana has been putting aside the counting of the dead to concentrate on rescuing the living, many of whom were still trapped on rooftops and in attics.
If the mayor's estimate holds true, it would make Katrina the country's deadliest hurricane since 1900, when a storm in Galveston, Texas, killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people.
A full day after the Big Easy thought it had escaped Katrina's full fury, two levees broke and spilled water into the streets Tuesday, swamping an estimated 80 per cent of the bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city, inundating kilometres and 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," 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."
With the streets awash and looters brazenly cleaning out stores, authorities planned to move at least 25,000 of the New Orlean's storm refugees to the Houston Astrodome, 560 kilometres away, in a vast, two-day convoy of some 475 buses.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the situation was desperate and there was no choice but to clear out.
"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."
Around midday, officials with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers said the water levels between the city and Lake Pontchartrain had equalized, and water had stopped rising in New Orleans, and even appeared to be falling, at least in some places. But the danger was far from over.
The Army Corps of Engineers said it planned to use heavy-duty Chinook helicopters to drop 9,000-kilogram sandbags Wednesday into the 150-metre gap in the failed floodwall. But the agency said it was having trouble getting the sandbags and dozens of 4 1/2-metre highway barriers to the site because the city's waterways were blocked by loose barges, boats and large debris.
Officials said they were also looking at a more audacious plan: finding a barge to plug the hole.
"The challenge is an engineering nightmare," the governor said on ABC's Good Morning America.
As the sense of desperation deepened in New Orleans, hundreds of people wandered up and down Interstate 10, pushing shopping carts, laundry racks, anything they could find to carry their belongings. Dozens of fishermen from up to 300 kilometres away floated in on caravans of boats to pull residents out of flooded neighbourhoods.
On some of the few roads that were still passable, people waved at passing cars with empty water jugs, begging for relief. Hundreds of people appeared to have spent the night on a crippled highway.
In one east New Orleans neighbourhood, refugees were being loaded onto the backs of moving vans like cattle, and in one case emergency workers with a sledgehammer and an axe broke open the back of a mail truck and used it to ferry sick and elderly residents.
Police officers were asking residents to give up any guns they had before they boarded buses and trucks because police desperately needed the firepower: Some officers who had been stranded on the roof of a motel said they were being shot at overnight.