Two days after Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast, conditions in the affected areas continued to deteriorate, with bodies floating in the streets, widespread looting and rising floodwaters in New Orleans, and conditions so bleak that Alabama officials compared the devastation to December’s Asian tsunami that killed more than 225,000.
President Bush, after an aerial tour of the area on Wednesday (August 31), called Hurricane Katrina, “one of the worst national disasters in our nation’s history,” and said the federal government is rushing to save lives.
Its streets filled with water rushing in from three breaches in levees built to protect the city from flooding, New Orleans was a scene of chaos Tuesday, as mass looting erupted in downtown stores and homes left empty by fleeing residents. More than 3,000 people stranded atop their roofs by rising floodwater were plucked out by Coast Guard helicopters and ferried to the New Orleans Superdome football stadium (see “Katrina Leaves At Least 65 Dead, Thousands Homeless” ).
“We’ve got desperate people shooting in the air, using flares to identify themselves,” said New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. “It’s a surreal situation, almost like a nightmare. I hope we wake up from it.”
More than 80 percent of the city remained under water, leaving residents with few options to escape the inundation and forcing officials to order an evacuation.
By day’s end, the combination of tropical heat, broken toilets and no air conditioning was beginning to wear on the more than 25,000 inside the Superdome, where a man died on Tuesday while attempting to jump from one level to another. As food and water began to run out and floodwaters threatened the stadium, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco on Wednesday ordered that it, too, be evacuated.
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“In the next two days we will have to try to ferry them out,” Blanco said, as floodwaters began to threaten the arena. Officials planned to use more than 400 buses to transport the storm refugees to the Astrodome in Houston, which will be equipped with a mental health facility and a nursery.
Elsewhere in New Orleans, winds from the storm destroyed portions of the twin-span bridge over Lake Pontchartrain and an oil tanker ran aground near the city’s docks. Adding to the misery, fires broke out around the city due to downed power wires and leaking gas lines, with firefighters unable to reach many house fires due to impassable roads.
Hospitals equipped to run on emergency generators for three or four days were beginning to airlift critical patients out, as the lack of power forced nurses to pump ventilators by hand and work by flashlight, sometimes in ankle-deep water.
Overwhelmed police pleaded with the public to stay off streets during mandatory curfew hours and arrested at least 50 for looting, according to a Los Angeles Times report. One officer was shot in the head while attempting to stop a looter; he was expected to survive.
“The looting is out of control,” New Orleans Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson told the paper. “We’re using exhausted, scarce police to control looting when they should be used for search and rescue while we still have people on rooftops.”
While looters ransacked clothing and jewelry stores on New Orleans’ Canal Street, in Biloxi, Mississippi, they ripped into casino slot machines to snatch coins, according to The Associated Press.
Workers spent much of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning trying to plug the breach in the 17th Street Canal levee by dropping 3,000-pound bags of sand and 15,000-pound concrete barriers, but the water was so fast and the hole so deep that Blanco said the attempts were, for the most part, failing. While many streets were dry in the aftermath of the storm, they filled with muddy liquid Tuesday as the breaches spilled the Gulf’s waters onto the debris-strewn avenues.
Though the city has not released the number of dead yet, Mayor Nagin told the AP that he fears the toll to the city could be in the hundreds, perhaps thousands.
Nagin estimated that it could be two weeks or more for all the water to be pumped out of the city and up to a month before evacuees would be allowed back into New Orleans. As for the tens of thousands of people who stayed and would need temporary housing for what could be weeks or months, The New York Times reported that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are considering renting apartments, putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities or trailers, or possibly even creating floating dorms for the displaced to stay in.
Federal officials declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf Coast on Wednesday, fearing the unsanitary conditions could result in the spread of everything from diarrhea to West Nile virus. Contaminated floodwater — which might harbor a toxic stew of human feces, gasoline and industrial chemicals — could spread bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, which can be fatal to infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
According to the Miami Herald, a mosquito-control program has already been launched in the area to combat potential outbreaks of such mosquito-borne illnesses as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile.
Officials also warned residents of the threat of alligators and snakes — and in at least one case, a shark — which washed into residential areas. Experts said it could be weeks, in some cases months, before power is restored to all the places affected by the storm.
In Mississippi, searchers have already recovered more than 110 bodies and fear that receding flood waters will reveal scores more. “We are very, very worried that this is going to go a lot higher,” said Joe Spraggins, civil defense director for Harrison County, who estimated that casualty numbers could “double or triple” once the water recedes.
Officials reported that all of the massive casinos that are a huge part of Mississippi’s economy — bringing in more than $500,000 a day — were swept away or destroyed by the hurricane, as were thousands of homes. Governor Haley Barbour compared the devastation to the aftermath of an atomic bomb.
“I can only imagine that this is what Hiroshima looked like 60 years ago,” Barbour told reporters. According to the Times, along the entire coastline of the state, nearly every structure between the beach and the railroad tracks a half-mile inland was destroyed. Officials were so busy with search and rescue that, across the region, they were not even beginning to count the dead, instead putting the bodies off to the side as they searched for survivors.
As the storm weakened into a tropical depression, it spun off tornadoes in Tennessee and has left more than 4 million people without power throughout the affected region. Analysts now estimate the damage at more than $25 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with an additional $4 to $10 billion in uninsured losses topping the bill.
In his press conference Wednesday, Bush said it would take years to recover from the hurricane aftermath, and not just in the four states battered by Katrina. “This is going to be a difficult road,” he said. “Our citizens must understand this storm has disrupted the capacity to make gasoline and to distribute gasoline.”
To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV’s hurricane relief page.