Wednesday, September 7, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Engineers struggled yesterday with the weeks-long task of draining this flooded saucer of a city, while the mayor last night issued an order authorizing the forced removal of people refusing to leave a city that was rapidly becoming a health risk.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin told all public safety officers “to compel the evacuation of all persons … regardless of whether such persons are on private property or do not desire to leave.”

Meanwhile, authorities braced for the horrors that would be revealed by the slow drainage of waters from Hurricane Katrina, a herculean task that was being measured by inches yesterday.

The pumping began after the Army Corps of Engineers used hundreds of sandbags and rocks over the Labor Day weekend to close a 200-foot gap in the 17th Street Canal levee that burst in the aftermath of the storm and swamped 80 percent of this below-sea-level city.

After an aerial tour yesterday, Mr. Nagin said the water was dropping ever so slightly, and he estimated that it covered only 60 percent of the city.

“Even in areas where the water was as high as the rooftops, I started to see parts of the buildings,” he said, adding, “I’m starting to see rays of light.”

In Washington, congressional officials said President Bush intends to seek as much as $40 billion to cover the next phase of relief and recovery as leading lawmakers and the White House pledged to investigate an initial federal response that was widely condemned as woefully inadequate.

As Congress convened after a five-week vacation, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said Katrina aid will be the “number one priority for the foreseeable future,” a priority that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said might cost the federal government more than $150 billion.

In New Orleans, the pumping got off to a woefully slow start.

Once all of the city’s pumping stations are running, they can move water at a rate of 29 billion gallons a day and lower the water level a half-inch per hour — or about a foot per day. But by late yesterday afternoon, Corps officials said only three of New Orleans’ normal contingent of 148 drainage pumps were operating.

The Army Corps of Engineers said the timetable ranges from three weeks to nearly three months, depending on a string of variables, including rainfall, the still-unknown condition of the abandoned pumps and whether the system can withstand the flotsam of broken buildings, trees, and trash — and corpses.

“We have to get the water out of the city or the nightmare will continue,” said Louisiana Environmental Secretary Mike McDaniel.

Mr. Nagin also warned of what could be revealed when the waters recede.

“It’s going to be awful, and it’s going to wake the nation up again,” said the mayor, who a day earlier increased his estimate of the death toll in his city to as much as 10,000.

With the water dropping, military and police turned their attention to evacuating the streets of the estimated 10,000 people still thought to be in the city. Some have been holed up in their homes for more than a week and refuse to leave.

“You’ve got to protect your property, that’s the main thing,” said 69-year-old John Ebanks, who waved off would-be rescuers from a porch stocked with food, mosquito spray and other supplies. “This is all I’ve got. I’m [too] old to start over.”

New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass told CNN: “These citizens will have to be removed for their own good.”

The mayor’s forced removal order did not apply to people in Algiers on the west side of Orleans Parish, CNN reported.

In a plea to holdouts who might be listening to portable radios in the powerless city, Mr. Nagin warned that the fetid water could carry disease and that natural gas was leaking all over town.

“This is not a safe environment,” Mr. Nagin said. “I understand the spirit that’s basically: ‘I don’t want to abandon my city.’ It’s OK. Leave for a little while. Let us get you to a better place. Let us clean the city up.”

To that end, the Pentagon began sending 5,000 paratroopers from the Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division to use small boats, including inflatable Zodiac craft, to launch a new search-and-rescue effort in flooded sections of the city.

But the water from Katrina has been standing for more than a week and is contaminated with E. coli bacteria, a highly placed official in the New Orleans mayor’s office told CNN yesterday.

“It’s absolutely unhealthy to be anywhere near the water,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Public-health officials in Washington yesterday announced the first deaths suspected to be related to tainted floodwaters, although they were not apparently related to E. coli, a bacteria that can cause fatal diarrhea in children and the elderly.

Tom Skinner, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said four persons — one a hurricane refugee evacuated to Texas, the other three in Mississippi — might have died of a waterborne bacterial infection circulating in Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters.

The deaths appear to have been caused by Vibrio vulnificus, a germ common in warm Gulf Coast waters that’s usually spread by eating contaminated food but can also penetrate open wounds, the suspected mode of transmission in these cases.

And in Houston’s Astrodome, health officials took steps yesterday against a diarrhea-causing virus made infamous by recent cruise-ship outbreaks.

Officials handed out alcohol-based hand sanitizers to stem the spread of norovirus, an easily spread cause of diarrhea and vomiting. Officials isolated some refugees with the illness, although they couldn’t provide an exact count. No treatment exists except to keep sufferers hydrated.

No large outbreaks are attributed to the hurricane, but infection control within shelters housing thousands of evacuees is a top priority, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, CDC’s director.

A plan to move thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees from the Astrodome to cruise ships was put on hold yesterday after many objected, some because they were terrified by the thought of living on the water.

“I can’t live over water. I can’t swim,” said Donna Smith, 24. “I wouldn’t want to see no more water. I saw enough already.”

Some National Guardsmen and helicopters were diverted from their search missions yesterday to fight fires, an emerging threat in a city that is still at least a day and a half away from restoring the first running water since the storm.

A candle was blamed for starting one major blaze in the lower Garden District — a historic neighborhood of mostly wooden homes. The flames started in an abandoned brick building and spread to a neighboring apartment house. The blazes burned for hours before Chinook helicopters with water pouches were brought in to fight the blaze.

Superintendent Compass said lawlessness in the city “has subsided tremendously,” and officers warned that those caught looting in an area where the governor has declared an emergency can get up to 15 years in prison.

The signs of hope came against increasingly angry rhetoric over the federal response as too little too late. In Washington, congressional leaders planned hearings into the aftermath of the storm.

“We need to rebuild the confidence of the American people … in our government’s ability to protect them from attack, whether it comes from nature or from terrorists,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat.

Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard was even more blunt.

“Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area,” he said on CBS’ “Early Show.” “Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don’t give me the same idiot.”

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