Hide and seek in New Orleans storm effort


  • World
  • Thursday, 08 Sep 2005

By Michael Christie

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - National Guard troops prepared to hunt on Thursday for thousands of people still clinging to life in ruined New Orleans, as the White House sent more money and top officials to Hurricane Katrina's destruction zone. 

The New Orleans stragglers were but a fraction of the million people displaced by the Aug. 29 storm in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Their fate in what was once one of Americas's favorite party cities was playing out in the spotlight. 

Livingston (Louisiana) Parish sheriff's deputies search a house during a patrol in the Uptown area of New Orleans, September 7, 2005. Thousands of Hurricane Katrina's victims in New Orleans clung to their ravaged lives on Wednesday, some refusing to leave despite threats of forcible evacuation, others simply trapped. (REUTERS/Lee Celano)

Officials have said perhaps 10,000 people remain in the flooded city surrounded by a toxic soup of garbage, human waste and floating corpses. The survivors have been without water and electricity in oppressive heat for more than a week since levee breaks flooded most of what had been home to 450,000 people. 

Eddie Compass, the New Orleans police chief, said there were residents who wanted to leave and just waiting for help. 

But some were staying in defiance of Mayor Ray Nagin's mandatory evacuation order. "Those that don't want us to find them, they hide," said Gregg Brown, a South Carolina game warden helping in the search. 

Robert Johnson, 58, said he had no money and nowhere to go, and wanted to stay to protect his home. "If I'm gonna be miserable I'd better be miserable right here," he said. 

The misery was unrelenting. Pumps worked to gradually drain the bacteria and chemical-laced oily water away from the city, but far more were out of commission than working. As much as 60 percent of New Orleans remained under water. 

Teams trying to find the thousands feared killed in the storm and its aftermath resorted to tying floating corpses to trees or fences for future recovery. A morgue set up outside the city stood ready to receive more than 5,000 bodies. 

HIGH COST, POLITICAL TOLL 

With a national recovery effort that may cost taxpayers $150 billion there was widespread criticism of the U.S. government's response to the disaster and the government's seeming lack of preparation ahead of the long-predicted storm. 

U.S. President George W. Bush asked Congress on Thursday for $51.8 billion for the recovery, on top of $10.5 billion approved by Congress last week. Federal disaster spending hit about $2 billion per day over the weekend and could stay above $500 million for some time, his budget director said. 

The Congressional Budget Office said 400,000 jobs could be lost and the nation's economic growth slashed by up to one percentage point by the disaster. 

Vice President Dick Cheney, whom Bush has asked to cut through any red tape slowing the recovery, was due on Thursday to visit hard-hit Mississippi as well as New Orleans. 

In addition, Treasury Secretary John Snow, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart are to travel to Houston, Louisiana, and Alabama on Thursday and Friday. They were to see relief facilities and get first-hand accounts about damage and recovery efforts. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), scorched by criticism of its performance, was handing out $2,000 debit cards -- $100 million worth -- to thousands of survivors. At the Houston Astrodome where 16,000 New Orleans evacuees are being housed, long lines formed for the money. 

"INSTITUTIONAL FAILURE" 

Criticism of the speed and scope of the government's response came from members of both political parties and the private sector. 

The situation "amounts to a massive institutional failure," said Raymond Offenheiser, president of the Oxfam America affiliate of the international relief agency. Oxfam mounted the first domestic U.S. rescue in its 35-year history in Mississippi. 

"Before Katrina, we reserved our emergency response for countries that lack the resources of the United States. If we've got this kind of failure at home, how can we expect poor countries to do better?" he asked. 

A Canadian search-and-rescue team had made it to the flooded New Orleans suburb of St. Bernard Parish five days before the U.S. military, Louisiana state Sen. Walter Boasso said. "We've got Canadian flags flying everywhere," he said. 

Bush's family also came in for criticism. A comment made earlier in the week by his mother, Barbara Bush, was slammed on Internet sites and newspaper pages. 

Speaking of evacuees in the Astrodome, the former first lady told a reporter in Houston: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. This is working very well for them." 

White House spokesman Scott McClellan described her comments as "a personal observation." 

There were signs officials were growing impatient with news coverage of the disaster. FEMA has excluded journalists from recovery expeditions and asked them to not take pictures of the dead, drawing protests from press-freedom advocates. 

NBC anchor Brian Williams wrote on the network's Web site that an out-of-town police officer at a New Orleans fire scene pointed her weapon at media members "armed only with notepads," and a National Guard sergeant interfered with attempts to film members of the unit. 

Leaders of Bush's Republican party said there would be a joint congressional investigation into the government's hurricane response, to the disappointment of minority Democrats who said an independent commission should investigate. Bush has also said he would lead a probe. 

Bush's response to the crisis was rated "bad" or "terrible" by 42 percent of Americans surveyed for a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll released on Wednesday, compared with 35 percent who said it was "good" or "great." 

(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in New Orleans, Jim Loney in Baton Rouge, Adam Entous, Adam Tanner in Houston and Maggie Fox in Washington) 

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