New Orleans in chaos as Bush calls disaster historic
Thu Sep 1, 2005 4:12 AM BST
By Jason Reed
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Thousands of desperate people waited for hours in sweltering heat to be evacuated from hurricane-hit New Orleans on Wednesday as President George W. Bush said it would take years to recover from one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the United States.
Food and water grew scarce and looters roamed the streets, but the floodwaters finally stopped rising in the historic city after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast a fierce blow on Monday.
Authorities prepared to evacuate thousands of residents remaining in New Orleans, many of them to Houston's Astrodome. Others waited for hours in parking lots and at highway underpasses for rides from buses and Army trucks.
Some piled into the back of pickup trucks or rode on delivery vans, their legs dangling over the sides.
Katrina is believed to have killed at least hundreds of people in Louisiana and Mississippi when it struck the Gulf Coast with 140-mph (225 kph) winds and a 30-foot (9-metre) wall of water that inundated a wide swath of coastline, trapping people in attics or on rooftops.
More than 78,000 people were already in emergency shelters and tens of thousands of homes and businesses were beyond repair, Bush said after flying over the disaster zone in Air Force One earlier in the day.
"We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history," Bush said after returning early to the White House from his Texas vacation to oversee recovery efforts.
"This recovery will take a long time. This recovery will take years," Bush said.
U.N. emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland, who oversaw the Asian tsunami relief effort, said Katrina could easily dwarf the devastation of other recent natural disasters in terms of economic costs.
Egeland called Katrina one of "the largest, most destructive natural disasters ever" and offered U.N assistance.
State governors ordered 10,000 additional National Guard troops to the area -- in part to quell the looting -- bringing the total to 21,000.
Many food and convenience stores in New Orleans had their doors or windows smashed. Some looters were seen calmly carrying contents out of stores.
The extent of the looting spread fear in the city famous for its jazz and easygoing lifestyle.
Cheryl Richou, from St. Charles Parish, a rural area west of New Orleans, said of the looters, "Everybody's scared they'll start coming to St. Charles."
Several television networks reported that New Orleans was pulling 1,500 police from the search-and-rescue mission to deal with looting and lawlessness in the streets.
A fleet of prison buses arrived at the storm-battered Superdome stadium to take 23,000 refugees to the Houston Astrodome 350 miles (550 km) away.
Stranded people were running out of food and water and growing desperate. Some pushed shopping carts filled with their belongings along freeways, with one cart holding a young girl who had passed out. Others asked for food and water.
"It's a lot of chaos right now," Louisiana state police Director H.L. Whitehorn said.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin estimated it would be 12 to 16 weeks before residents could return. A million people fled the New Orleans area before Katrina arrived. But former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy estimated 80,000 were trapped in the city.
The stricken city got some good news as water finally stopped flowing in and started flowing out, a senior official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.
"It's not a significant decrease but it's not rising any more," said Al Naomi, a senior project manager with the Corps. "It will still take a while to get the water out of the city.
The U.S. military set out to stanch the flow of water into New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain through breaches in the levee system that holds water out of the city, much of which sits below sea level.
Katrina's death toll was more than 200 in one Mississippi county alone, and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said she had heard at least 50 to 100 people were dead in New Orleans.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told CNN's "Larry King Live," The coast is just the greatest devastation I've ever seen ... but I spent most of the day inland -- 100 miles (160 km inland, we had winds 110 to 130 miles (180 to 210 km). This is not just a calamity of the coast for us. This goes way up into our state."
The Bush administration declared a public-health emergency as officials feared outbreaks of disease.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, some corpses were under too much rubble to collect safely, and two lay partly exposed to the hot sun in the remnants of a seaside apartment building.
"We don't know what we're going to do with them. It just leaves you numb," said hearse driver Jakel Marshall.
The U.S. military was sending a hospital ship and two helicopter-carriers to assist two other Navy ships already conducting rescues in the area.
Louisiana officials said 3,000 people had been rescued, but many more waited to be picked up in boats that cruised flooded streets or helicopters that buzzed overhead.
"I'm alive. I'm alive," shouted a joyous woman as she was ferried from a home nearly swallowed by the flood.
The administration said it would release oil from the nation's strategic reserves to offset losses in the Gulf of Mexico, where the storm had shut down production.
The U.S. Coast Guard said at least 20 oil rigs and platforms were missing in the Gulf, either sunk or adrift.
U.S. crude-oil prices eased below $70 per barrel, but analysts said they expected retail gasoline prices to vault well over $3 (1.67 pounds) a gallon as early as this weekend.
Katrina knocked out electricity to nearly 5 million people in four states, utility companies said, and restoring power could take weeks.
(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in Mobile, Alabama)