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Bush Sends More Troops; Thousands Still Stranded

Times Staff Writers

An influx of National Guard troops speeded evacuation efforts and brought a relative calm to this devastated city Saturday, but authorities continued to struggle to evacuate thousands, to quell sporadic fires and looting, and to cope with a diaspora of the dispossessed fanning out across the nation.

President Bush ordered 7,200 Army and Marine reinforcements to join a National Guard force expected to swell to 40,000 regionally in coming days. The military helped clear the squalid Superdome shelter and vastly reduced the encampment at the city’s convention center, nearly a week after massive flooding unleashed by Hurricane Katrina.

“I don’t know if the cavalry has arrived, but there is definitely progress being made,” said New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. “We’re starting to turn the corner.”

While much of the city remained underwater, the landmark French Quarter and Garden District stood mostly dry Saturday, as did much of Uptown to the north and west of downtown. Like the rest of the city, those areas remained without power and drinking water.

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Addressing the nation from the White House on Saturday, Bush reiterated his acknowledgment a day earlier that the relief effort had initially fallen short, but he said added forces would help set New Orleans and Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in order.

“Hour by hour, the situation on the ground is improving,” Bush said. “Yet the enormity of the task requires more resources and more troops.”

The pledges continued to sound hollow to many of those awaiting relief in 95-degree heat and stifling humidity, including Larry Martin, 35, who had been waiting four days to be bused from the convention center.

“They embraced and they cried on Sept. 11; they cried for the tsunami,” Martin said.

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“But they just left us here to die.... We survived the hurricane, and now we’re still fighting to survive a week later. It’s crazy.”

Stepped-up federal efforts were matched by what charities said were record donations by the public -- totaling more than $400 million -- and Internet campaigns that had thousands of Americans offering to house the dispossessed.

Under fierce criticism from flood victims and regional political leaders, Bush and his emergency management team sought to emphasize progress made. But they also conceded that recovery would be enormous work.

By Saturday, an estimated 51,480 of the homeless had been placed in 127 Red Cross shelters in Louisiana and another 220,000 in hotels and shelters in Texas.

Local and federal authorities opened two jails to hold suspected looters and others thought to be preying on the vulnerable. And officials had begun to plan how to collect and catalog the dead, opening the first temporary morgue.

“We’re taking the streets back from criminals who have attempted to terrorize citizens,” said the U.S. attorney for the region, Jim Letten.

Still, New Orleans officials estimated at least several thousand people remained stranded in the city. They received at least 1,000 calls from people pleading to be rescued from attics, porches and rooftops.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimated it would need at least 36 days to pump water out of the city and as much as 80 days to drain the water from neighboring parishes.

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Other challenges loomed. Crews worked to repair 881,730 phone lines and to restore power to 668,000 Louisiana homes that survived the storm.

Complaints about the speed and tactics of the relief efforts persisted Saturday, with Louisiana’s two Democratic senators saying the federal government should already have offered direct cash aid to flood victims.

And one state senator from Baton Rouge -- frustrated at seeing thousands of evacuees waiting to be taken from a camp on Interstate 10 -- hired three Greyhound buses to ship families to an Air Force base in the center of the state.

Sen. Cleo Fields said the evacuees would be delivered to England Air Force Base in central Louisiana and that he would demand that they be housed and fed.

Although much of the focus remained on helping the stranded, authorities began to turn more attention to the dead.

An inkling of the grim work ahead emerged Saturday: Emergency crews arriving in Chalmette, just south of New Orleans, learned that 31 residents in a nursing home had died when floodwaters filled the facility, and rescuers found the bodies of 21 others from the fishing and oil community roped together.

“I want the world to know that federal and state help did not show up here right away,” said Fire Chief Tommy Stone. “Let me tell you, if they can’t come help us now, God help us if there is ever a terrorist attack.”

The relentless stress of the unfolding tragedy spared no one, including the rescuers. A distraught police officer shot himself to death Friday night at a staging area in Algiers, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

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Mayor Nagin said that several thousand firefighters and police would soon need relief: “They are really starting to show some signs of cracking.”

The soldiers and Marines ordered to the stricken region should be in place within three days, Bush said Saturday.

“The main priority is to restore and maintain law and order and assist in recovery and evacuation efforts,” he said. His explanation of the deployment seemed to divert some of the blame for the delayed response onto criminals who had attacked rescuers.

“Our priorities are clear,” Bush said. “We will complete the evacuation as quickly and safely as possible. We will not let criminals prey on the vulnerable, and we will not allow bureaucracy to get in the way of saving lives.”

He added: “The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans, and that is unacceptable.”

Soon after the president spoke, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) distributed a letter to Bush calling for immediate cash assistance for survivors.

“Only the federal government can adequately address the basic needs of our fellow Americans suffering from this disaster, and they deserve a better response from their government,” they said.

Fields, the state senator who led the evacuation of more than 200 people along Interstate 10, said he had to take action because the government had failed to help. He joined other black leaders Saturday in complaining that Louisianans were being shipped too far away from their homes.

“To move evacuees to shelters in Arkansas, for instance, makes no sense,” said Fields. “We have a responsibility to take care of our own in our state. We have lost more people from starvation and neglect than the hurricane itself.... To not have people in safe shelter right now is ... unconscionable.”

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said more distant relocations, while not desirable, were a necessity. “There are some realities we can’t cure overnight,” she said.

The displaced in Texas and other states welcomed their deliverance from the worst conditions in New Orleans, but their secondary shelters were hardly garden spots.

Inside Houston’s Astrodome, evacuees stood in long lines for medical attention and showers. “I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” said Evonne Ripley, 28, of New Orleans.

Officials in Houston said they hoped to move evacuees out of shelters quickly but had no immediate plan.

“It’s not heaven, but it’s better than what they’ve had,” said Dr. Kenneth Mattox, an official with the Harris County Hospital District.

Fractured families continued to struggle to find their loved ones. Child welfare authorities in Louisiana particularly worried about 127 children who had been separated from their parents. Many of the children -- among whom were infants -- had been shipped to shelters in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“Some of them are too young to tell us their names,” said Marketa Garner Gautreaux, of the Louisiana Department of Social Services. “Some of them were just pulled in a different direction when people were pushing to get on a bus.” In at least one instance, a mother handed her baby to someone on a bus as she tended to her belongings, then watched helplessly as the bus door closed and left while she remained outside.

Federal officials took some consolation that the Superdome shelter, which had come to symbolize the troubled relief effort, was almost clear of victims.

While the bulk of the homeless continued to be bused to Texas, the federal government hired three ships from the Carnival cruise lines, which steamed toward the stricken city with room to house about 4,500 evacuees.

Early Saturday, evacuation efforts had shifted to the largest remaining encampment: 15,000 people hunkered down at the city’s convention center. The throng waited with resignation, relief and despair as scores of National Guard members arrived to help. The whir of twin-rotor military helicopters filled the air as they swooped on the center’s parking lot to remove the elderly, the infirm and infants, many of whom were severely dehydrated after days in the steamy heat.

The crowd at the convention center had been reduced to 1,000 by late Saturday, and authorities said they expected those remaining to be moved out sometime today.

Still, an unknown number of survivors remained scattered -- from flooded attics in the heart of the city to vacation homes dotting Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. As they get more organized, rescue workers said, thorough house-to-house searches will begin. Some residents, concerned about conditions in shelters, have refused to leave their homes. Nagin said some might be forced to evacuate so cleanup could proceed unfettered.

The colossal engineering challenge of drying out the city has become clearer, said Gen. Don Riley, the Army Corps of Engineers’ director of civil works. He predicted that removing water from Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes would take more than twice as long as New Orleans proper because the pumps were smaller in those communities.

“We’re bringing in as many pumps as we can find from around the nation ... as quick as we can,” Riley said.

Nagin, who had been publicly enraged a day before by the pace of relief work, said Saturday that he believed “significant progress” had been made in the public works efforts, including levee repairs.

Bush’s emergency management team spent much of its time Saturday before the press defending its response to the crisis.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose department oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the “combination of catastrophes” exceeded FEMA’s initial disaster plans. But he promised the U.S. would “move heaven and earth” to rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina, which he called “probably the worst catastrophe or set of catastrophes” in U.S. history.

The head of FEMA, Michael D. Brown, said he understood the frustration of those still stranded and hungry. “I’m frustrated, sure; everybody’s frustrated,” Brown said. “This is a war zone we’re working in now, and we’ll continue to make progress day by day.”

The top military commander in the disaster zone, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, also expressed his sorrow but added that given the challenges, the military had responded in “record time.”

Honore said the mood at the Superdome “has been tense. But guess what? There has been more talk of riots and disorder than there actually has been.”

The general said evacuees would have left if the shelter had truly become intolerable.

“If there was a fire under your feet, would you stand there? Hell, no,” said Honore, a Louisiana native. “There was an acceptable amount of risk. They would have come out of that place. It was better for them to stay.”

Concern for those in the disaster zone stretched across the nation.

The millions of dollars pouring into various charities for hurricane victims was “unprecedented in recent American history,” according to Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Three-quarters of the $400 million in contributions and pledges to date has gone to the American Red Cross.

Those figures dwarf the amounts given in the days immediately after the Indian Ocean tsunami ($79.8 million) and the terrorist attacks of 2001 ($24.8 million).

“The total amounts for Sept. 11 were over a billion dollars, but that took several months,” Palmer said. “To have more than $404 million [after nine days], it is astonishing.”

A variety of other efforts, large and small, emerged Saturday. Actors Tim Robbins and John Cusack joined singer Michael Stipe in promoting a campaign by the liberal political organization Moveon.org that offered 90,000 beds in private homes for the homeless. The group posted a list of homes opening their doors at www.hurricanehousing.org.

Locally, a group of Los Angeles residents said they were going to cancel Labor Day plans and donate the money to the Red Cross and other charities. Ken Montgomery, who lives downtown, donated $250 to the Red Cross -- money he had planned to spend on a trip to the Bay Area. “I saw everything and said, I just can’t waste 50 gallons of gas,” Montgomery said.

Hart and Zucchino reported from New Orleans and Rainey from Los Angeles. Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Scott Gold and Ellen Barry from New Orleans, Tony Perry from Houston, and Daniel Hernandez and Cara Mia DiMassa from Los Angeles.


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