- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Rising floodwaters engulfed much of New Orleans yesterday after an overnight break in at least two levees, and the imminent failure of the region’s water pumps promised even worse flooding, prompting officials to order the city evacuated.

Further up the Gulf Coast, the death toll from Hurricane Katrina had already topped 100 in one Mississippi county and was expected to rise further, with the state’s governor comparing the devastation to a nuclear attack.

In Louisiana, officials said they could not even begin to count their dead, and were “pushing them” aside while trying to reach survivors as the flooding in New Orleans grew worse by the minute.

“We’re not even dealing with dead bodies,” New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said yesterday, one day after Katrina howled ashore with winds of 145 mph. “They’re just pushing them on the side.”

Early in the day, Mr. Nagin said that the waters from Hurricane Katrina had left 80 percent of the city under water, “with some sections … as deep as 20 feet.”

But according to a bulletin displayed in all capital letters last night on the Web site of New Orleans TV station WWL, “all residents on the East Bank of Orleans and Jefferson remaining in the metro area are being told to evacuate as efforts to sandbag the levee break have ended.”

About “9 feet of water is expected in the entire East Bank,” meaning all of New Orleans, “within the next 12-15 hours” because the pumps keeping the below-sea-level city dry even under normal circumstances, are expected to fail soon.

The city had been under a mandatory evacuation since Sunday, and earlier in the day, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said the persons who fled into the Superdome and other refugee centers would have to be evacuated.

“The situation is untenable,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”

Officials from both states said it was clear that the death toll would rise sharply, with one survivor after another in both states telling of friends and loved ones who floated off or disappeared as the floodwaters rose around them.

“I talked with paramedics that are on the scene, and the devastation is so great that they won’t quit counting [bodies] for a while,” said Mark Williams, operations supervisor for American Medical Response, which has ambulances along the Mississippi coast.

“We are very, very worried that this is going to go a lot higher,” said Joe Spraggins, civil defense director for Harrison County, Miss., home to hard-hit Biloxi and Gulfport, in announcing the 100-plus figure for his county last night. “We’re just estimating, but the number could go double or triple from what we’re talking now.”

In neighboring Jackson County, officials said at least 10 deaths were blamed on the storm.

In New Orleans, officials began using helicopters to drop 3,000-pound sandbags into a 500-foot breach along the 17th Street Canal leading to Lake Pontchartrain.

But Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, told the Houston Chronicle last night that the effort had failed. The paper reported that workers would try to use helicopters to lower 180 15,000-pound concrete barriers, similar to those used to divide highways, into the breach.

That 17th Street Canal breach, combined with the failure of many of the below-sea-level city’s water-removal pumps, caused downtown streets that had remained relatively clear to fill up yesterday with several feet of water.

Water was waist-high around the Superdome, where about 10,000 people have taken shelter. The other breach was on the Industrial Canal, on the Mississippi River.

“The water is rising so fast I cannot begin to describe how quickly it’s rising,” Tulane University Medical Center Vice President Karen Troyer-Caraway told CNN. “We have whitecaps on Canal Street, the water is moving so fast.”

Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, tree trunks, downed power lines, trees and chunks of broken concrete in the streets prevented rescuers from reaching victims. Along one Mississippi highway, motorists used chain saws to remove trees blocking the road.

The string of floating barge casinos crucial to the coastal Mississippi economy were a shambles. At least three of them were picked up by the storm surge and carried inland, their barnacle-covered hulls sitting up to 200 yards inland.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said it was not a case of homes being severely damaged — “They’re simply not there … I can only imagine that this is what Hiroshima looked like 60 years ago.”

The biggest known cluster of deaths was at the Quiet Water Beach apartments, a red-brick beachfront complex of about 100 units in Biloxi. Harrison County emergency operations center spokesman Jim Pollard said about 30 people died there. All that was left was a concrete slab.

“We grabbed a lady and pulled her out the window and then we swam with the current,” 55-year-old Joy Schovest said through tears. “It was terrifying. You should have seen the cars floating around us. We had to push them away when we were trying to swim.”

“This is our tsunami,” Mayor A.J. Holloway of Biloxi, Miss., told the Biloxi Sun Herald.

Tens of thousands of people will need shelter for weeks, if not months, said Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And once the floodwaters go down, “it’s going to be incredibly dangerous” because of structural damage to homes, diseases from animal carcasses and chemicals in homes, he said.

More than 40,000 people were in American Red Cross shelters along the Gulf Coast, and officials urged the upward of 1 million people that evacuated from the New Orleans metropolitan area to stay away until further notice.

“We saw block after block, neighborhood and neighborhood inundated,” Mrs. Blanco said, her voice breaking with emotion, after flying over the region.

With water rising perilously inside the Superdome, Mrs. Blanco said the tens of thousands of refugees now huddled there and other shelters in New Orleans would have to be evacuated.

She asked residents to spend today in prayer.

“That would be the best thing to calm our spirits and thank our Lord that we are survivors,” she said. “Slowly, gradually, we will recover. We will survive. We will rebuild.”

A helicopter view of the devastation over the New Orleans area revealed people standing on black rooftops baking in the sunshine while waiting for rescue boats. A row of desperately needed ambulances were lined up on the interstate, water blocking their path.

Roller coasters jutted out from the water at a Six Flags amusement park. Hundreds of inmates were seen standing on a highway because the prison had been flooded.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, quietly traced the sign of the cross across her head and chest as she looked out at St. Bernard Parish, where only roofs peaked out from the water.

“The whole parish is gone,” Mrs. Landrieu said.

All day long, rescuers in boats and helicopters pulled out shellshocked and bedraggled flood refugees from rooftops and attics. The Coast Guard said it has rescued 1,200 people 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’ low-lying Ninth Ward. “We were screaming, hollering, flashing lights. It was complete chaos.”

Looting broke out in Biloxi and in New Orleans, in some cases in full view of police and National Guardsmen. On New Orleans’ Canal Street, the main thoroughfare in the central business district, looters sloshed through hip-high water and ripped open the steel gates on the front of several clothing and jewelry stores.

“It’s downtown Baghdad,” said tourist Denise Bollinger, who snapped pictures of looting in the French Quarter. “It’s insane.”

More than 1,600 Mississippi National Guardsmen were activated to help with the recovery, and the Alabama Guard planned to send two battalions to Mississippi.

“We know that last night, we had over 300 folks that we could confirm were on tops of roofs and waiting for our assistance. We pushed hard all throughout the night. We hoisted over 100 folks last night just in the Mississippi area. Our crews over New Orleans probably did twice that,” Coast Guard Capt. Dave Callahan told ABC.

At the Superdome, someone died after plunging from an upper level of the stadium, said Terry Ebbert, New Orleans’ homeland security chief. He said the person probably jumped.

Katrina knocked out power to more than 2 million people from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, and authorities said it could be two months before electricity is restored to everyone.

By midday yesterday, Katrina was downgraded to a tropical depression, with winds of about 35 mph. It was moving northeast through Tennessee at about 21 mph.

Forecasters said that as the storm moves north over the next few days, it could swamp the Tennessee and Ohio valleys with 8 or more inches of rain. On Monday, Katrina’s remnants spun off tornadoes and other storms in Georgia that smashed dozens of buildings and were blamed for at least one death.

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