- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — The National Guard arrived in force yesterday with food, water and weapons, churning through the floodwaters in a vast truck convoy.

The troops were greeted with both catcalls and cries of “Thank you, Jesus!”

With a cigar-chomping general in the lead truck, the National Guard convoy rolled through muddy water up to the axles to reach the New Orleans Convention Center, where 15,000 to 20,000 desperate refugees had taken shelter. It was the first major relief convoy to reach the convention center.

The Guardsmen set up six food and water lines, dispensing the first of millions of MREs, the Meals Ready to Eat that feed the troops in Iraq. Dozens of armed soldiers kept a wary eye on the lines. The crowd was for the most part orderly and grateful for a meal.

Diane Sylvester, 49, was the first person through the line. She emerged with two bottles of water and a pork rib meal. “Something is better than nothing,” she said as she mopped sweat from her brow. “I feel great to see the military here. I know I’m saved.”

Angela Jones, 24, began guzzling her water before she even cleared the line. “Like steak and potatoes!” she cried. “I didn’t think I was going to make it through that.”

Meanwhile, Dan Craig, director of recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told foreign diplomats invited to a State Department briefing that it will take up to six months to get the water out of New Orleans, and the city then would need to dry out, which could take up to three more months.

Work crews gained control over one of the breaches in a levee yesterday and expect to have another major gap closed today, Brig. Gen. Robert Crear of the Corps of Engineers told reporters at a briefing in Baton Rouge.

In New Orleans, Guardsmen with weapons at the ready arrived at the Louisiana Superdome, where a vast crowd of bedraggled people fanned themselves, waiting to be rescued from the heat, the filth and the gagging stench inside the stadium.

Flatbed trucks carried huge crates, pallets and bags of relief supplies, including the MREs. “Lord, I thank you for getting us out of here,” Leschia Radford told the soldiers at the convention center.

Not all were pleased. Michael Levy, 46, said to a reporter: “They should have been here days ago. I ain’t glad to see ‘ em.” That brought shouts of agreement in the line: “Hell, yeah!” He added: “We’ve been sleeping on the … ground like rats. I say burn this whole … city down.”

The arrival of the thousands of soldiers followed complaints from the mayor and others — themselves targets of accusations of incompetence — that the federal government had bungled the relief effort and let people die in the streets for lack of food, water or medicine. Thousands are feared dead in New Orleans.

“The people of our city are holding on by a thread,” Mayor C. Ray Nagin said in a radio interview laced with profanity. “Time has run out. Can we survive another night? And who can we depend on? Only God knows.”

In Washington, President Bush said “the results are not acceptable” and pledged to bolster the relief efforts. He visited the stricken Gulf Coast later in the day, and pledged in Mobile, Ala.: “What is not working right, we’re going to make it right.”

Both the Superdome and the convention center seethed with anger in recent days: Fistfights and fires broke out, refugees complained that the government had forsaken them, and some in the crowd menaced police.

The military said its first priority was delivering food and water, after which it would begin evacuating people — which could require days.

“As fast as we can, we’ll move them out,” said Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, head of the military task force conducting relief operations. “Worse things have happened to America. We’re going to overcome this, too. It’s not our fault. The storm came and flooded the city.”

The relief effort was bolstered by three CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the Republic of Singapore, which had been attached to a training base in Grand Prairie, Texas. Thirty-eight pilots, crewmen and technicians from the Southeast Asian island nation will be temporarily assigned to Fort Polk, La., to work with the Texas National Guard.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass rode down the street on the running board of a box truck and announced through a bullhorn to thunderous applause: “We got 30,000 people out of the Superdome and we’re going to take care of you.

“We’ve got food and water on the way. We’ve got medical attention on the way. We’re going to get you out of here safely. We’re going to get all of you,” he said.

Elderly men and women cried out their thanks and several nearly fainted with joy. Mr. Compass warned that the troops would stop distributing the food and water and leave if the crowd grew disruptive.

Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said that by tonight he expects to have 7,000 National Guardsmen in New Orleans. Half have just returned from assignments overseas and are “highly proficient in the use of lethal force.” He pledged to put down the violence “in a quick and efficient manner.”

Earlier yesterday, an explosion at a warehouse rocked a wide area of New Orleans before daybreak, jolting residents awake, lighting up the sky and sending a pillar of acrid gray smoke climbing over a city awash in corpses. A second large fire erupted downtown in an old retail building in an unflooded stretch of Canal Street.

There were no reports of injuries. But the fires deepened the gloom hovering over the city since Katrina came ashore Monday morning. Over the days since, several police officers turned in their badges. Rescuers, law officers and medical-evacuation helicopters were shot at by snipers and thugs. Fistfights and fires broke out at the Superdome as thousands of people waited in misery to board buses for the Houston Astrodome. Corpses lay in the open in wheelchairs and under bedsheets. The looting continued, and the police chief said even officers were breaking into stores for food and water.

“Our officers have been urinating and defecating in the basement of Harrah’s Casino,” Mr. Compass said. “They have been going in stores to feed themselves.”

City officials have accused the government — namely FEMA — of responding sluggishly.

“Get off your asses and let’s do something,” the mayor told WWL-AM Thursday night in a rambling interview in which he swore, yelled and ultimately burst into tears. At one point he said: “Excuse my French — everybody in America — but I am pissed.”

FEMA Director Michael Brown said his agency just learned about the situation at the convention center Thursday and scrambled to provide food, water and medical care and remove the corpses.

Several New Orleans’ hospitals, facing dwindling supplies of food, water and medicine, resumed evacuations yesterday. Rescuers finally made it into Charity Hospital, the largest public hospital and trauma center in the city, where snipers thwarted efforts on Thursday to evacuate more than 250 patients.

“We moved all of the babies out of Charity this morning,” said Keith Simon, spokesman for Acadian Ambulance Service.

One Hurricane Katrina refugee died and several others were injured yesterday when a bus carrying them from the Superdome overturned and rolled across a highway median. Ten persons were taken to hospitals, several critically injured, the Opelousas Daily World reported. A spokesman for the Louisiana State Police said the driver lost control of the vehicle, but other details were not known.

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