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Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seeing less water but more debris

Newhouse News Service

NEW ORLEANS — Amid heightened confusion over whether residents would be forcibly removed from their homes, New Orleans yesterday welcomed a noticeable reduction in the increasingly vile floodwaters that have coated neighborhoods for a week and a half.

Overnight, the waters receded in the Lower Ninth Ward, in Mid City and along the critical infrastructure piece of Interstate 10.

Roughly one-fifth of the city's 75 major drainage pumps are back up and online, according to officials with the city's Sewerage & Water Board.

In some areas, that meant a noticeable reduction in water levels. The water board's main purification plant, which was inundated with as much as 3 feet of water and still flooded Wednesday, was dry yesterday.

At a pumping station on the west side of the 17th Street Canal, the action of the three reactivated pumps was apparent. Debris ranging from garbage cans to flowerpots piled up on the gates as the massive pumps sucked floodwaters toward Lake Pontchartrain. The current was strong, rippling in places.

The Army Corps of Engineers said the city was about 60 percent flooded, down from as much as 80 percent last week. Massive pumps pull out 11,000 cubic feet per second, roughly equal to 432 Olympic-size swimming pools per hour.

Engineers said the mammoth undertaking could take months and could be complicated by corpses.

"It's got a huge focus of our attention right now," said John Rickey of the Corps. "Those remains are people's loved ones."

Although there were no indications of major outbreaks of disease, the slop that had sat for days throughout the city, filled with bloating corpses, human excrement, chemicals and other debris, left its mark. On the eastern side of the Industrial Canal, cars and low-slung homes that had stewed in gloppy water since the levees broke reappeared yesterday morning. The vehicles were uniformly brown, coated with layers of the mud. A kind of film sat atop strewn trash and broken trees.

Within this mess, human beings continued to live. Army paratrooper teams, which are running foot patrols in neighborhoods from the French Quarter to the Industrial Canal, played loudspeakers down still-flooded streets.

Team members said they had no orders to take residents out of their homes despite talk from Police Superintendent Eddie Compass and Mayor Ray Nagin that a mandatory evacuation was in effect for New Orleans and that the city must be cleared.

Some 400,000 homes in the city are without power. Where water has been restored, it is not drinkable.

At least 11 fires burned across the city yesterday, including a rash of fires that raged across the campus of historically black Dillard University, destroying three large buildings.

Congress

Total of $62 billion

approved for aid

WASHINGTON — President Bush and Congress moved on multiple fronts yesterday to rush fresh relief, vowing to get cash directly into the hands of victims while enacting an unprecedented spending package to feed and house evacuees, rebuild schools and bridges, and begin clearing out the vast rubble.

Just a day after Bush's request, the House voted 410 to 11 to approve $51.8 billion for relief, and the Senate followed suit hours later 97 to 0, bringing the total passed in the past week to $62.3 billion, with more to come.

Nearly half of the money — $23.2 billion — will go directly to as many as 1.1 million households in the form of housing grants and other assistance. Such aid will be capped initially at $26,200 per household.

House also approved a series of other measures to help people displaced by the hurricane, such as accelerating welfare money to affected states and allowing college students to keep federal financial aid even if their schools are now closed.

But Democrats were blocked from adding provisions to restructure the Federal Emergency Management Agency, heavily criticized over its handling of the disaster response.

Under the Democratic proposals, the agency would be detached from the Department of Homeland Security and its director required to have previous experience managing disasters.

On the final votes, the only dissenters were nearly a dozen House Republicans, some of whom expressed concern about accountability for the huge expenditures.

Even before the votes, Bush summoned television cameras to address hurricane victims directly, promising to provide every household $2,000 as soon as possible to tide it over and to expedite government benefits such as Medicaid, unemployment checks, food stamps, mental-health services and nutritional supplements without the traditional bureaucratic requirements.

He said that more than 400,000 families already have applied for federal aid.

Bush declared next Friday a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance.

VIPs dispatched

Cheney, Laura Bush

sent by president

In the latest effort to demonstrate commitment to improving the federal response, Bush dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to the region yesterday and first lady Laura Bush to other states housing evacuees.

Cheney personally encountered some of the hostility directed at the administration. As he spoke with reporters in a street in Gulfport, Miss., a young man shouted at him. "Go (expletive) yourself, Mr. Cheney," the man yelled twice. Cheney smiled slightly but did not respond.

In his first tour of the damage, Cheney offered an upbeat assessment of what he called the "very impressive" current response efforts.

Debit cards

Word of aid causes

misunderstanding

HOUSTON — Because of a misunderstanding, hundreds of Katrina evacuees crowded impatiently outside the Astrodome yesterday, waiting for the debit cards that had been promised by relief agencies.

Some were overcome by the heat and taken away by ambulance. Police had to be called in for crowd control.

The cards, which enable storm victims to buy necessities, were made available by the American Red Cross.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Wednesday that it would issue its own debit cards, for up to $2,000 each.

Word quickly spread through the Astrodome and hurricane victims began to seek them out, but workers said the distribution of those cards would not take place for a couple of days.

"Receiving state"

Oregon may take

up to 500 victims

Oregon is preparing to receive as many as 500 hurricane evacuees tomorrow, while Washington state probably won't get large numbers of people displaced by Katrina until Wednesday at the earliest.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski received a call from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) yesterday designating Oregon as a "receiving state."

The Red Cross Oregon Trail Chapter has already set up a shelter an empty high-school gymnasium in southeast Portland. That may explain why Oregon is likely to get the first major influx of evacuees in the Northwest, said Holly Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Kulongoski.

In Washington, state officials are still working on a plan for housing evacuees, said Rob Harper, a spokesman for the state Emergency Management Division.

State officials initially had considered housing evacuees at Fort Lewis but are looking at other options, Harper said.

FEMA told Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire yesterday that the state may received Katrina evacuees sometime after Wednesday.

Tough decision

Tainted floodwaters

flowing into lake

WASHINGTON — The decision to pour heavily contaminated floodwaters from New Orleans streets into Lake Pontchartrain was a difficult one and could pose new environmental problems in the years ahead, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said yesterday.

"We were all faced with a difficult choice," EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said. "The choice was, we have to get the water out of New Orleans for the health and safety of the people and we need to put it someplace."

The other option was to pour it into the Mississippi River, where it eventually would move into the Gulf of Mexico, Johnson said.

The first set of samples tested show it has a level of sewage-related bacteria that is at least 10 times higher than acceptable, as well as a surprising amount of lead. Louisiana officials say it is laced with an assortment of heavy metals, pesticides and toxic chemicals.

Johnson said the EPA is testing for more than 100 chemicals.

So far, the EPA tests have been focused in residential areas and in the French Quarter, not the industrial areas where the floodwaters are likely to be more heavily laced with toxic substances, Johnson said.

Along with the toxic chemicals and sewage, the lake has become saltier. Environmentalists worry that could harm the lake's cypress swamps.

DEATH TOLLS

Reported by state officials from Hurricane Katrina as of yesterday. The total is expected to reach the thousands.

Louisiana: 118

Mississippi: 204

Alabama: 2

Florida: 11

Georgia: 2

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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