Da The Houston Chronicle del 31/08/2005
Originale su http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/topstory/3332488

City wages war on encroaching water

In New Orleans, officials grapple with looters and floating corpses

di Dale Lezon, Kevin Moran

NEW ORLEANS - Emergency workers Tuesday night were fighting a pitched battle to save the city of New Orleans as water gushed through a gaping breach in a levee.

The latest development came as city officials desperately grappled with a host of hurricane-related problems, including bodies floating in the streets, looters rampaging through the city's heart, evacuations of thousands of patients from hospitals suffering power failures and fires burning out of control because of lack of water pressure and manpower.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco grew tearful Tuesday afternoon as she described the plight of one of America's most historic and culturally unique cities, prostrated before sunrise Monday by Hurricane Katrina's winds.

"The situation is untenable," she said. "It's just heartbreaking."

But then Blanco added: "We will recover. We will survive. But it's going to be gradual."

As Mayor C. Ray Nagin Tuesday night warned that water in parts of Orleans and suburban Jefferson parishes could rise to 15 feet and urged residents to leave, giant concrete barriers were being trucked to the site of a levee break on the city's western edge.

Workers were to labor through the night using helicopters to lower 180 barriers, each weighing 15,000 pounds, into the breach in the levee of the 17th Street canal, which links to Lake Pontchartrain. Fifty 3,000-pound sand bags also were to be dropped into place.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said the latest effort to plug the break, which occurred when Hurricane Katrina blasted into the city, came after earlier attempts to stop the flow with sandbags.

Maj. Gen. Don Riley, civil works director for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the 500-foot breach will remain plugged about 24 hours, long enough for Pontchartrain's level to drop. Then, it will be removed, allowing water from flooded neighborhoods to flow into the canal.

Nagin earlier reported that 80 percent of the city had been flooded, with water as deep as 20 feet in some places. Two other levee breaks were reported in the city's eastern sector. Riley said water already was flowing back into the lake through those breaches.


As New Orleans grappled with unprecedented disaster, rescue workers continued their search for survivors in the storm-shattered cities on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said up to 80 people may have died in Harrison County — home to Gulfport and Biloxi — alone. That death toll includes an estimated 30 people who perished when a storm surge swamped the Quiet Water Beach Apartments in Biloxi.

In New Orleans, a city of 485,000 precariously situated between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, Nagin admitted, "We're not even dealing with dead bodies. They're just pushing them on the side."

Authorities continued to pluck residents from attics and rooftops. Since Monday, more than 300 have been rescued.

By late in the day, City Park and much of the Mid City area were flooded. Water outside the Superdome, where roughly 10,000 people had taken shelter, was knee deep. Canal Street, authorities said, was filled with hip-deep water. Students were reported stranded by high water in a dormitory at Xavier University. Water lapped at the edges of the French Quarter, but that section remained essentially dry.

Floodwaters were filled with clusters of red ants, but authorities worried about worse contaminants: sewage and toxic petrochemicals.

Rock 'n' roll star Antoine "Fats" Domino's home was flooded, as was that of City Council President Oliver Thomas.

"I want to wake up tomorrow and think it was a dream, but I know everything's lost," Thomas said.

In New Orleans — which is, on average, 7 feet below sea level — broken levees constitute the most dire crisis. The city operates 20 to 30 pumps that shunt rainwater into Lake Pontchartrain. But many of the pumps now are inoperable.

Brian Buckel, New Orleans District construction engineer with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, suggested that if the holes in the levees are filled, engineers might punch holes in other levees to allow water in the city to escape.

After most of the water had drained, Buckel said, pumps could remove the rest. That might take as long as a month.

Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noted that thousands of New Orleanians who left after a mandatory evacuation order Sunday may need temporary housing for months. More than 700,000 people were left without electricity in the New Orleans area, Entergy officials reported.

Blanco said Hurricane Katrina reduced the Interstate 10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain between New Orleans and Slidell to a "jigsaw puzzle."

Five hundred medically fragile evacuees sheltered at the Louisiana Superdome were transferred Tuesday to a facility at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. At least 2,500 patients at seven hospitals also were moved to medical centers elsewhere. Authorities have decided to relocate about 100,000 refugees housed at the Superdome and other shelters to areas outside New Orleans.

In St. Bernard Parish, where at least 40,000 houses are said to be flooded, Sheriff Jack Stephens admitted he was "helpless" in the face of food and water shortages at his community's emergency shelters.

"They're going to start killing each other if we don't get them out of there," he said Tuesday. "We're facing near-riots already."


More than 1,100 refugees crowded the gym and second floor of the Chalmette High School.

"We have critically ill people who will probably expire within the next day if they don't get medical attention," school Superintendent Doris Voitier said. "We have very little water, no food and we have no communications. ... Someone, somewhere better do something for us."

Still to be addressed is how to deal with the dead.

Stephens estimated that the death toll for his parish could reach the thousands.

Martial law was declared Tuesday, but the impact seemed negligible.

On Canal Street and in the French Quarter, looters pillaged businesses as police and National Guardsmen patrolled nearby.

City Council President Thomas described the criminal activity as "the most despicable thing you could think of at this time of crisis."

Walter Maestri, emergency management director in Jefferson Parish, said low-lying neighborhoods in his parish are under 6 to 20 feet of water.

"It'll be 60 days before anything resembling normalcy returns to the area," he said. "We will also be dealing with the effects of this storm for 10 to 12 months, depending on what we find.

"The 'Big Easy' is now the 'Big Nasty.' "
Annotazioni − Chronicle reporters Allan Turner and Cindy Horswell and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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