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Misery and Water Keep Rising

Times Staff Writers

Across the storm-devastated Gulf Coast, overwhelmed rescue teams and public officials struggled Tuesday to cope with the enormity of Hurricane Katrina’s rising toll of chaos and death. New Orleans sank into crisis as floodwaters rushing through breached levees endangered hundreds of storm victims, while searchers in Mississippi’s ravaged shore towns recovered 100 bodies and pressed to find scores of missing.

The landscape between New Orleans and Alabama was transformed by wind and surf into stretches of churning floodplain. In New Orleans, two levees broke, leaving 80% of the city flooded.

Hundreds of stranded survivors atop roofs waved frantically to Coast Guard helicopters for salvation from rising waters. At least 3,000 people were rescued in New Orleans, where low-lying neighborhoods were swamped by threatening currents from Lake Pontchartrain, public safety officials said. An untold number of people were missing.

“We’ve got desperate people shooting in the air, using flares to identify themselves,” said New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. “It’s a surreal situation, almost like a nightmare. I hope we wake up from it.”

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New Orleans reeled from miseries that mounted by the hour: A forlorn Nagin said police and National Guard patrols reported numerous bodies floating in flooded streets. Storm-whipped currents toppled the twin-span bridges over Lake Pontchartrain. An oil tanker ran aground near the city docks.

The city’s horizon darkened with black smoke from dozens of fires sparked by downed wires and erupting gas lines. Geysers of gas-fed flame burst out of the water. Houses burned but firefighters were unable to get through blocked roads and freeways.

Crowds broke into stores at will, even making raids on shops in the French Quarter, wheeling off stolen goods in shopping carts while overwhelmed police officials pleaded for public compliance with mandatory curfews. At least 50 people were arrested for looting.

“The looting is out of control,” said New Orleans Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson. “We’re using exhausted, scarce police to control looting when they should be used for search and rescue while we still have people on rooftops.”

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Weakened to a tropical depression and tossing off tornadoes as it unraveled through Tennessee, Katrina left more than 4 million people without electricity, utility officials reported.

Analysts estimated storm damage could cost insurers more than $25 billion, the most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history. Uninsured losses could add $4 billion to $10 billion more, they said.

President Bush declared parts of Mississippi and Alabama major disaster areas, freeing up federal aid. In a speech to military personnel at the North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado, Calif., Bush called Katrina’s aftermath “a trying time” for the people in Mississippi and Louisiana who were most affected.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said there had been “initial discussions” about the president visiting the affected areas by the end of the week.

As federal emergency management teams reached the area, officials contended with widespread breakdowns in public service. Water plants failed and sewers overflowed. Gas lines ruptured and hospitals shut down. Fuel supplies dwindled.

Katrina’s human toll presented the most pressing needs. Even the dead had to wait while search teams aided the living. “We’re not even dealing with bodies,” Nagin said. Searchers were “just pushing them on the side.”

As the water rose on Broad Street in east New Orleans, Mousa Harden, 32, the owner of a tire rim accessory shop, clambered into an attic with two relatives. The water kept coming. Harden ripped a fan from the ceiling, using a hammer to carve out a hole in the roof.

They waited for hours until Coast Guard rescuers found them Tuesday morning and lifted them up on a sling into a hovering helicopter. Shoeless and dazed, Harden spent the rest of the day wandering the glass-strewn streets of the city’s business district.

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“As far as the eye could see, every house was in deep,” he said.

The extent of the destruction along the Gulf Coast was apparent early Tuesday.

“At first light, the devastation is greater than our worst fears. It’s just totally overwhelming,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said at a news conference. “We know many lives have been lost,” she said, although she had no numbers of confirmed fatalities.

There was no need to guess about deaths in the Mississippi coastal towns of Biloxi and Gulfport and surrounding Harrison County. Katrina leveled a direct hit. Harrison County emergency officials confirmed that 100 people had died, at least 30 in the collapse of a Biloxi apartment house during the height of the storm.

“We are very, very worried that this is going to go a lot higher,” said Joe Spraggins, civil defense director for Harrison County. Spraggins said fatalities “could go double or triple from what we’re talking now.”

“This is our tsunami,” Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said, a reference to the disaster that killed more than 226,000 people in southern Asia in December.

Specialized divers and search and rescue units from across California were flown to the Gulf Coast at the request of Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. The teams were headed first for Lafayette, La., but were expected to fan out to the hardest-hit areas.

The teams included boat operators, divers, paramedics and rescue officials from fire departments in Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, San Diego, Oakland, Menlo Park and Sacramento.

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Katrina’s winds ripped into Mississippi’s coastal communities, flinging boats onto dry land, sending walls of muddy seawater six miles inland and reducing motels, casinos and docks to mounds of debris.

Rescue teams poked through the crumbled red bricks of Biloxi’s Quiet Water Beach apartments, where bodies were still being recovered. The beachfront complex had 100 units, and officials were unsure how many people had taken refuge inside.

Joy Schovest, 55, was in the complex with her boyfriend, Joe Calvin, when the water began rising. They stayed despite a mandatory evacuation order.

“The water got higher and higher,” she said, breaking into tears. “It pushed all the doors open and we swam out. We grabbed a lady and pulled her out the window, and then we swam with the current. It was terrifying. You should have seen the cars floating around us. We had to push them away when we were trying to swim.”

One storm victim who identified himself to television station WKRG in Mobile, Ala., as Harvey Jackson stood shaking in front of the rubble mounds, clinging to his two children. His voice breaking in despair, Jackson said he was searching for his missing wife, Tonette, who had disappeared as his house split in half.

“I tried to hold her tight as I could, but she couldn’t hold on,” Jackson said. “She told me, ‘You can’t hold me. Take care of the kids and the grandkids.’ I’m lost. It’s all I have.”

For every heart-rending tale of lives destroyed, there were more accounts of tragedy averted.

After Katrina barreled past New Orleans on Monday, Oliver Thomas spent the strangest day of his life on a friend’s fishing boat. Thomas saw people clinging to the support beams on the bottom of the interstate. He saw the corpse of a man dressed in a track suit floating past in the muck near Elysian Fields.

But the image that stayed with him was a woman in a red robe who yelled from an open window across the flooded interstate as his boat receded: “You’re leaving me!”

New Orleans, which is largely below sea level, was awash in floodwater. A levee along the suburban Industrial Canal ruptured during the storm, but the city’s main dikes appeared to hold until 9 p.m. Monday, when a breach two blocks long opened by the 17th Street Canal, allowing tons of water from Lake Pontchartrain to rush in.

Police made sorties into the rising water all night, but by daylight, hundreds more residents sat stranded on rooftops.

Wayne Washington, a local deputy sheriff, returned after a long night rescuing more than 200 people by boat. One was an elderly amputee who managed to escape his house through a window and crawl onto his roof. He lay there for hours with his dog.

Rescuers peered into the dark, probing with flashlights. They picked up single passengers on personal watercraft and hoisted children out of windows into waiting boats.

Public health officials said the floodwaters were a breeding ground for disease -- and there were reports late Tuesday that a 3-foot shark was seen trolling the muck.

For much of the day, lake water continued to spill into the city over the broken levee. Tuesday evening, authorities made an attempt to plug the breach in the 17th Street Canal levee using a barricade of sandbags and concrete barriers. Helicopters were aiming to drop 108 barriers, each weighing 15,000 pounds, along with 50 3,000-pound sandbags, starting shortly after dark.

But Blanco said an attempt to plug the breach in the 17th Street levee appeared to be failing, because “the hole is so deep that [the sandbags] are just disappearing. The water is rising. It’s rising around” the Louisiana Superdome.

Blanco said there were 20,000 people in the Superdome and it had become “a very, very desperate situation.” Many there had been rescued from rooftops, she said, and they felt “a mixture of ... being thankful and at the same time extremely frightened at the thought of losing family members who were not able to get in the boats” because of limited capacity.

She said tensions were rising, and that the Superdome should be evacuated in the next two or three days.

In neighboring Jefferson Parish, officials told evacuated residents they would be allowed to return briefly next week to retrieve essential items from their flooded homes. Then they would be kept away for as long as a month.

“We can’t feed you. We can’t give you water,” said Tom Capella, chairman of the Jefferson Parish City Council. “There is no reason to be there.”

Meanwhile, the water that inundated Jefferson Parish and New Orleans continued its inexorable rise.

“The water is coming from the river. The water is coming from the lake. The water is coming from the canals. And it’s meeting up right here,” said Paul Williams, 43, who waded through the city’s 7th Ward in an attempt to reunite with his parents and his 2-year-old son, who were trapped.

“There’s hope here,” Williams said. “But not much.”

Cars were abandoned everywhere in the high water, some jammed up on the curb, others left in the middle of the road.

National Guard patrols used trucks at the dry end of the flooded zone to carry people to shelter. Even then, many families waded out only to find themselves split up because there were limited seats in the trucks.

“I don’t want to lose you!” Terrell Washington, 26, yelled after his wife and child as they were loaded into the back of a camouflaged truck.

As the water neared the heart of the French Quarter, some hotels began evacuating.

Kathy Quinlan, 47, walked away from the French Quarter, dragging a soggy suitcase. Quinlan and her husband had come to New Orleans from Jacksonville, Fla., to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary and were trapped by the storm. On Tuesday, their hotel in the French Quarter told them they had to go.

“They were nice enough and everything,” she said. “But they couldn’t tell us anywhere to go. They said: ‘Sorry. We don’t have anywhere to go ourselves.’ ”

All around the city, looters were breaking into stores and filling up sacks. Outside the Garden District, five men broke into a Walgreens drugstore, opened boxes of trash bags and filled up with all the merchandise they could carry.

They calmly hoisted the bags into the back of pickups and, in plain view, drove away.

At a drugstore on the fringes of the French Quarter, there were orderly lines to loot. At least a dozen people, some with shopping carts, waited to enter the store.

“I just took what I need,” said Marie Brown, 36, as she waded though water carrying a sack of items spirited from the drugstore -- two umbrellas, a bottle of shampoo and a package of cookies.

“When I left my house, I didn’t have time to take anything, that’s how fast the water is rising. Everyone you see out here, they’re just trying to survive,” she said.

On some corners, police and National Guard troops ignored the looters, more concerned with rescue missions.

But elsewhere, police cracked down. They swept through Canal Street, a wide, dry boulevard on the edge of the French Quarter, taking back stores and restaurants already picked over by bands of looters. Police ordered away dozens of people at gunpoint. “They will stay there through the night and through the rest of this, or until the water forces them out,” police Lt. Michael Cahn said.

Tensions rose as night settled in. One police officer was reported shot, but officials declined to discuss the incident. Looters and police taunted each other on Canal Street.

“You want to steal something now?” shouted one police officer who toted a large shotgun.

As Juanita Carruth, 26, paraded by, carrying her 8-month-old daughter on her shoulders, another armed officer snapped at her to move faster.

“I’m sorry,” Carruth said, crying. “I can’t go any faster. I don’t know if I can go on. I am not worried about me -- I am just worried about my baby.”

Gold reported from New Orleans, Barry from Baton Rouge, La., and Braun from Washington. Researchers Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta and Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this report.


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