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Monday, September 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Evacuation and recriminations

The Washington Post

NEW ORLEANS — Most everyone in town knew right away that the worst had happened. The cops heard about it even before Hurricane Katrina arrived. Hardy souls who stayed behind figured it out quickly, too. They climbed the stairs to the second floor, then the attic and then started looking for axes to punch through the roof.

The 17th Street Canal levee had collapsed last Monday morning beneath the might of Katrina's storm surge, opening a chasm in the city's flood-protection system and sending a deluge coursing into New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain.

From that moment, the fate of New Orleans was sealed. The city, supposedly 80 percent evacuated by the time the storm hit, would have to be emptied altogether. There was no place for people to stay. And there would not be anywhere to stay next week, next month, perhaps next year. It was time to go.

Yet it took until late Saturday to take 42,000 people away, mostly from the fetid Superdome and the equally squalid convention center, while city officials estimated an equal number still awaited evacuation. And that was just New Orleans. Nobody knew how many people in the surrounding parishes needed transportation.

"They keep coming out of the woodwork," said Terry Ebbert, the director of homeland security for New Orleans. "The human suffering I've seen here is greater than anything I've ever been exposed to."

With the evacuations under way, recriminations abounded. Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), blamed the city. Mayor Ray Nagin "can order an evacuation," Brown said in a telephone news conference, but it did not work because the city did not have "the resources to get the poor, elderly or the disabled out."

Countered New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas: "Everybody shares the blame here." The large numbers needing assistance may have been a surprise, "but when you talk about the mightiest government in the world, that's a ludicrous and lame excuse. You're FEMA, and you're the big dog. And you weren't prepared either."

But a look at Katrina's immediate aftermath suggests a rush of conflicting demands overwhelmed the ability of officials of all kinds to cope. The feds should have moved faster. President Bush admitted as much Friday, characterizing relief efforts as "not acceptable." The locals, in a broad sense, did not heed their own warnings.

There was no secret about New Orleans. The city is a below-sea-level punch bowl. A direct hit from a major hurricane would mean evacuating 700,000 of the 1.1 million people in the metropolitan area, University of New Orleans researcher Shirley Laska said in a sobering paper written a year ago. Lose a levee, she said, and 40,000 to 60,000 people could die.

Nagin ordered a voluntary evacuation for New Orleans on Saturday, Aug. 27, two days before the storm made landfall and made the evacuation mandatory the next day. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test," Nagin told the city. "This is the real deal."

Six surrounding parishes issued similar orders, and buses took a lot of people out. But a lot stayed behind: the elderly, the infirm, people with special needs, the hurricane die-hards and plenty of tourists. Some airlines did not fly to New Orleans on Sunday, Aug. 28.

But mostly, the remainder were poor people. New Orleans has 120,000 residents without cars, Laska said in her paper. They needed rides, and they did not get them.

This problem should have been foreseen, noted Abby Maxman, the Haiti director for the relief agency CARE, which provided assistance to the city of Gonaives in September 2004, when 3,000 of 180,000 inhabitants perished at the hands of Hurricane Jeanne.

"If you are poor, the choices are very, very limited," Maxman said. "But, really, did they have a choice?" Maxman suggested that more mass shelters in proximity to poor communities would have lessened the impact of the disaster.

When the storm passed, there were 9,000 people in the Superdome, even though the city had provided services only for the sick and those with special needs. Others could use it "as a shelter of last resort," Nagin said.

But after the levee collapsed, the Superdome became the shelter of "only resort," and by Tuesday there were 20,000 inside. The multitude would increase to 30,000 as the week progressed.

"[Last] Monday we knew what we needed by numbers," Ebbert said Saturday. "We told FEMA we needed to move 30,000 people. Now we're just rolling on No. 30,000. This should have been five days ago."

But New Orleans had other things to worry about. The primary concern last Monday was the burst levee; the focus Tuesday was on plucking desperate survivors from submerged houses, and on Wednesday attention shifted to looters.

Only Thursday did evacuation grab the spotlight. By then the Superdome had turned into a stifling, dimly lighted cavern covered in trash and human waste. Sick people were dying unattended, and women were being raped.

The buses started to arrive Wednesday morning but did not make an immediate dent in the crowding. Under increasing criticism for their failure to act quickly, officials spoke about how the scope of the tragedy could not have been anticipated.

But some of the excuses rang hollow. Denise Bottcher, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, said Louisiana traditionally relies on Mississippi, Alabama and Florida for National Guard help during emergencies, but the other states had their own problems with the storm. This could have been anticipated days before it hit.

It was not until Thursday that the Defense Department said it was assembling 7,000 federal troops in "Joint Task Force Katrina" to help with relief and security. The same day, State Police Superintendent Col. Henry Whitehorn said a group of Louisiana sheriffs was assembling another "task force" to help control New Orleans.

It was, for some, too little, too late. "These are people who fell through the safety net, as they always do," Paul Valteau, the sheriff of Orleans Parish said.

"People in Iraq get treated better by the federal government."

Gugliotta reported from Washington. Staff writer Jacqueline Salmon in Baton Rouge, La., staff writers Elizabeth Williamson and Spencer S. Hsu in Washington, and researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington

contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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