Monday, September 5, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — The city turned its attention to gathering thousands of the dead — their bodies hidden in attics, floating in the ruined city, crumpled in wheelchairs, abandoned on highways.

“It is going to be about as ugly of a scene as I think you can imagine,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned.

In the first official count, Louisiana emergency medical director Louis Cataldie said authorities had verified 59 deaths, including 10 in the Superdome, but several federal officials yesterday predicted that the death toll will be in the thousands, echoing what city and state officials have said.

As the search for bodies continued, police shot eight persons, killing five or six, after gunmen attacked a group of Army contractors on their way to make repairs, authorities said.

The 14 contractors were traveling across the Danziger Bridge under police escort when they came under fire, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.

They were on their way to launch barges into Lake Pontchartrain to help plug the breach in the 17th Street Canal, Mr. Hall said. None of the contractors was killed.

Also yesterday, a civilian helicopter crashed near the same bridge, but the two crew members on board escaped with only cuts and scrapes, said Mark Smith of the state office of emergency preparedness.

Federal officials urged those still left in New Orleans to leave for their own safety. Rescuers have encountered people who said they did not want to evacuate.

“That is not a reasonable alternative,” Mr. Chertoff said.

“We are not going to be able to have people sitting in houses in the city of New Orleans for weeks and months while we de-water and clean this city. … The flooded places, when they’re de-watered, are not going to be sanitary.”

To expedite the rescues, the Coast Guard requested through the press that anyone stranded hang out brightly colored or white linens or anything to draw attention. But with the electricity out through much of the city, it was not known whether the message was being received.

The U.S. Public Health Service said one morgue alone, at a St. Gabriel prison, expected 1,000 to 2,000 bodies.

In addition to civilian deaths, New Orleans Police Department has had to deal with suicides in its ranks. Two officers took their lives, including the department spokesman, Paul Accardo, who died Saturday, said Chief Riley. Both shot themselves in the head, he said.

“I’ve got some firefighters and police officers that have been pretty much traumatized,” Mayor C. Ray Nagin said.

The strain was apparent in other ways. Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, dropped his head and cried on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The guy who runs this building I’m in, emergency management, he’s responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home, and every day she called him and said, ‘Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?’ And he said, ‘And yeah, Momma, somebody’s coming to get you. Somebody’s coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody’s coming to get you Thursday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Friday,’ — and she drowned Friday night. She drowned on Friday night,” Mr. Broussard said.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated, seeking safety in Texas, Tennessee and other states. The first group of refugees who will take shelter in Arizona arrived Sunday in Phoenix. With about 225,000 already in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry ordered emergency officials to begin preparations to airlift some of them to other states that have offered help.

What will happen to the refugees in the long term was not known.

Back in New Orleans, walk-up stragglers at the convention center were checked by Navy medics before they were evacuated. Lt. Andy Steczo said he treated people for bullet wounds, knife wounds, infections, dehydration and chronic problems such as diabetes.

“We’re cleaning them up the best we can and then shipping them out,” Lt. Steczo said.

One person he treated was 56-year-old Pedro Martinez, who had a gash on his ankle and cuts on his knuckle and forearm. Mr. Martinez said he was injured while helping people onto rescue boats.

“I don’t have any medication, and it hurts. I’m glad to get out of here,” he said.

In a devastated section on the edge of the French Quarter, people went into a store, whose windows were already shattered, and took out bottles of soda and juice.

A corpse of an elderly man was wrapped in a bedsheet in a wooden cart on Rampart Street. In New Orleans’ Garden District, a woman’s body lay at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street. The body had been there since at least Wednesday.

By yesterday, a short wall of bricks had been built around the woman’s body, holding down a plastic tarpaulin. On it, someone had spray-painted a cross and the words, “Here lies Vera. God help us.”

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