New Orleans takes evacuation effort door to door

  • World
  • Thursday, 08 Sep 2005

By Michael Christie

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Police and National Guard troops planned a door-to-door search on Thursday for thousands of people unable or unwilling to leave ruined New Orleans. 

Boats continued to cruise the waters in search of the thousands feared dead from Hurricane Katrina and the White House dispatched a team of top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, to tour the destruction zone. 

A resident is lifted out of a boat after being rescued in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans September 7, 2005. (REUTERS/David J. Phillip/Pool)

But the immediate focus 10 days after Katrina hit land and changed the face of the U.S. Gulf Coast was evacuation. 

Vice Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. Coast Guard chief of staff named this week to take over the federal response in New Orleans, said authorities would comb the city block-by-block, knocking on doors to find stragglers. 

"We need everybody out so we can continue with the work of restoring this city," Allen said on the CBS "Early Show." 

About one million people have been displaced by the Aug. 29 storm in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. 

But 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. 

Some are waiting to be rescued, others were staying in defiance of Mayor Ray Nagin's mandatory evacuation order. 

New Orleans Police Chief Edwin Compass said authorities were prepared to force people to leave, but they have not yet finished voluntary evacuations. He told NBC's "Today Show" police in the city renowned for its street parties were well-rehearsed in dealing with unruly residents. "We're going to use those same methods we use to control Mardi Gras." 


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 gathering bodies 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. 

"It's my understanding FEMA has 25,000 body bags on hand," Bob Johannessen, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

He said it was not to be considered an indicator of the final death toll but "It tells us we're prepared." 

In neighboring Mississippi, ripped apart by the storm but spared the flooding that has plagued New Orleans, the death toll stood at around 200. 

"The 200 or just over 200 we think is a credible or reliable figure," Mississippi Gov Haley Barbour told NBC's "Today." 

With the high death toll and a national recovery effort that may cost taxpayers $150 billion there was widespread criticism of the federal response to the disaster and the government's seeming lack of preparation ahead of the storm. 

A CBS News poll said 65 percent Americans thought Bush was too slow to respond to the disaster and 58 percent disapproved of his performance. Large majorities said federal, state and local officials all acted too slowly. 

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. 

Bush on Thursday asked Congress 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. 

Cheney was to visit hard-hit Mississippi as well as New Orleans. He has kept a low profile since the storm, but Bush asked him earlier this week to speed the recovery efforts. 

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. 


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. 

One stricken New Orleans suburb was dotted with Canadian flags after a Canadian search-and-rescue team made it to the St. Bernard Parish five days before the U.S. military, Louisiana state Sen. Walter Boasso said. He said the outlying parish was largely ignored by the federal government. 

"Why does it take them seven days to get the Army in?" Boasso asked. 

There were signs of impatience from federal officials as well -- theirs was directed at 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. 

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. 

(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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