Thousands are probably dead in flooded-out New Orleans, mayor says
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Oil prices surged yesterday and gasoline prices were poised to top $3 a gallon by this weekend as oil companies and federal officials began assessing Hurricane Katrina's damage to the heart of the nation's energy production.
The extent of destruction was still unclear yesterday, as oil companies were having difficulty assessing damage due to power outages, impassable roads and disrupted communications. More than one-third of domestically produced oil normally comes from the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. benchmark crude oil priced for October delivery rose more than $3 a barrel yesterday to trade as high as $70.90, before closing at $69.81.
The Washington Post
Washing Away: New Orleans newspaper ran special report predicting disaster: http://www.nola.com/hurricane/?/washingaway/
NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Katrina probably killed thousands of people in New Orleans, the mayor said Wednesday — an estimate that, if accurate, would make the storm the nation's deadliest natural disaster since at least the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and other people dead in attics, Mayor Ray Nagin said. Asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."
The frightening estimate came as Army engineers struggled to plug New Orleans' breached levees with giant sandbags and concrete barriers, and authorities drew up plans to clear out the tens of thousands of people left in the Big Easy and practically abandon the flooded-out city. Many of the evacuees — including thousands now staying in the Superdome — will be moved to the Astrodome in Houston, 350 miles away.
There will be a "total evacuation of the city. We have to. The city will not be functional for two or three months," Nagin said. And he said people will not be allowed back into their homes for at least a month or two.
Nagin estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people remained in New Orleans, a city of nearly half a million. He said 14,000 to 15,000 a day could be evacuated.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, began mounting one of the largest search-and-rescue operations in U.S. history, sending four Navy ships with drinking water and other emergency supplies, along with the hospital ship USNS Comfort, search helicopters and elite SEAL water-rescue teams. American Red Cross workers from across the country converged on the devastated region in the agency's biggest-ever relief operation.
Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Monday just east of New Orleans with howling, 145-mile wind. The death toll has reached at least 110 in Mississippi alone. But the full magnitude of the disaster had been unclear for days; Louisiana has been putting aside the counting of the dead to concentrate on rescuing the living, many of whom were trapped on rooftops and in attics.
If the mayor's estimate holds true, it would make Katrina the nation's deadliest hurricane since 1900, when a storm in Galveston, Texas, killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people. The death toll in the San Francisco earthquake and the resulting fire has been put at anywhere from about 500 to 6,000.
State officials said the mayor's figure seemed plausible.
Lt. Kevin Cowan of the state Office of Emergency Preparedness said there is no way to determine with any accuracy how many died. But he noted that since thousands of people had been rescued from roofs and attics, it could be assumed that there were lots of others who were not saved.
"You have a limited number of resources, for an unknown number of evacuees. It's already been several days. You've had reports there are casualties. You all can do the math," he said.
A full day after the Big Easy thought it had escaped Katrina's full fury, two levees broke and spilled water into the streets Tuesday, swamping an estimated 80 percent of the bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city and inundating miles and miles of homes.
Around midday, officials with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers said the water levels between the city and Lake Pontchartrain had equalized, and the water had stopped pouring into New Orleans, and even appeared to be falling, at least in some places. But the danger was far from over.
The Army Corps of Engineers said it planned to use heavy-duty Chinook helicopters to drop 15,000-pound bags of sand and stone as early a Wednesday night into the 500-foot gap in the failed floodwall.
But the agency said it was having trouble getting the sandbags and dozens of 15-foot highway barriers to the site because the city's waterways were blocked by loose barges, boats and large debris.
Officials said they were also looking at a more audacious plan: finding a barge to plug the 500-foot hole.
"The challenge is an engineering nightmare," the governor said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
With the streets awash and looters brazenly cleaning out stores with law enforcement officers too busy to do anything about it, authorities Many of the city's refugees — 15,000 to 20,000 people — were in the Superdome, which had become hot and stuffy, with broken toilets and nowhere for anyone to bathe. "It can no longer operate as a shelter of last resort," the mayor said.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the situation was desperate and there was no choice but to clear out.
"The logistical problems are impossible and we have to evacuate people in shelters," the governor said. "It's becoming untenable. There's no power. It's getting more difficult to get food and water supplies in, just basic essentials."
Walter Baumy of the Army Corps of Engineers said that it could be weeks before the water is removed from the city, but that he is confident New Orleans' pumps, once they are back in service, can handle the load.
As the sense of desperation deepened in New Orleans, hundreds of people wandered up and down Interstate 10, pushing shopping carts, laundry racks, anything they could find to carry their belongings. Dozens of fishermen from up to 200 miles away floated in on caravans of boats to pull residents out of flooded neighborhoods.
On some of the few roads that were still passable, people waved at passing cars with empty water jugs, begging for relief. Hundreds of people appeared to have spent the night on a crippled highway.
In one east New Orleans neighborhood, refugees were loaded onto the backs of moving vans like cattle, and in one case emergency workers with a sledgehammer and an ax broke open the back of a mail truck and used it to ferry sick and elderly residents.
Police officers were asking residents to give up any guns they had before they boarded buses and trucks because police desperately needed the firepower: Some officers who had been stranded on the roof of a motel said they were being shot at overnight.
The sweltering city of 480,000 people — an estimated 80 percent of whom obeyed orders to evacuate as Katrina closed in over the weekend — had no drinkable water, the electricity could be out for weeks, and looters were ransacking stores around town.
Sections of Interstate 10, the only major freeway leading into New Orleans from the east, lay shattered, dozens of huge slabs of concrete floating in the floodwaters. I-10 is the only route for commercial trucking across southern Louisiana.
In addition to the Houston Astrodome solution, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was considering putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks, and so-called floating dormitories — boats the agency uses to house its own employees.
A helicopter view of the devastation over Louisiana and Mississippi revealed people standing on black rooftops, baking in the sunshine while waiting for rescue boats.
Looting broke out in some New Orleans neighborhoods, prompting authorities to send more than 70 additional officers and an armed personnel carrier into the city. One police officer was shot in the head by a looter but was expected to recover, authorities said.
A giant new Wal-Mart in New Orleans was looted, and the entire gun collection was taken, The Times-Picayune newspaper reported. "There are gangs of armed men in the city moving around the city," said Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security chief.
The governor acknowledged that looting was a severe problem but said that officials had to focus on survivors. "We don't like looters one bit, but first and foremost is search and rescue," she said.
In Washington, the Bush administration decided to release crude oil from federal petroleum reserves to help refiners whose supply was disrupted by Katrina. The announcement helped push oil prices lower.
Associated Press reporters Holbrook Mohr, Mary Foster, Allen G. Breed, Adam Nossiter and Jay Reeves contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company