The nation’s senior health official bluntly predicted Sunday that Hurricane Katrina’s death toll would rise into the thousands as Louisiana medical authorities tallied the first sobering evidence -- 59 dead in makeshift morgues and another 100 corpses lined on docks east of the flood-swept city.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt became the first senior Bush administration official to confirm publicly that arriving teams of medical examiners expected to spend months collecting bodies.
Leavitt said it was “evident” that the storm killed thousands.
As a team of senior administration officials toured the battered Gulf Coast in advance of President Bush’s return to the region today, the federal government came under renewed criticism. Democrats and agitated Louisiana officials said the government had failed to prepare for the disaster and did not provide immediate help to tens of thousands of victims.
“We have been abandoned by our own country,” said Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana and a Democrat. He broke down on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday recounting the drowning death of the mother of one of his aides.
Trying to deflect the criticism by insisting that they were too caught up in the unfolding crisis to respond, federal officials tightened their grip on the movements and mission of National Guard and active-duty troops along the Gulf Coast. The force was expected to total more than 16,000 troops by today.
Bush dispatched several Cabinet officials to the region to help assess the damage and to provide assistance, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“Homeland Security has the baton,” Rumsfeld said, referring to Chertoff’s role in coordinating troops for the relief effort.
While active-duty troops concentrate on relief operations, National Guard troops have moved to assume control of security in New Orleans, replacing exhausted police.
Almost all of the thousands of evacuees who had huddled in squalor inside the Louisiana Superdome and the city’s convention center were gone from the heart of the city, shipped out by Guard troops who were enforcing strict security in the area.
About 250,000 evacuees are being housed in shelters, hotels and homes in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry on Sunday ordered emergency officials to airlift some of them to states that had offered to help. Perry said relief centers around the state were running out of room.
“There are shelters set up in other states that are sitting empty while thousands arrive in Texas by the day, if not the hour,” Perry said.
Despite pacifying downtown New Orleans, arriving Guard units had not exerted control over the city’s outlying, waterlogged neighborhoods. Authorities shot and killed as many as eight suspected looters in separate incidents Sunday, officials said.
In one case, seven men fired on a sheriff’s deputy who had been sent to New Orleans from another part of Louisiana. The deputy was hauling a boat to a staging area for a rescue mission. Officers from the New Orleans Police Department shot at the seven men, killing two.
“The security forces won,” Mayor C. Ray Nagin said. “We’re going to make this city safe. Anybody out there who has any ideas of doing anything but evacuating -- there will be serious consequences.”
At least 200 officers on the 1,500-member New Orleans police force have quit, city officials said, and many of those who are still on patrol are growing weary. Nagin said he would try to rotate police officers out of New Orleans starting today.
About 300 officers would remain in the city and would be rotated out at some point. Nagin said he would try to send the officers to Atlanta and Las Vegas in an attempt to revive morale. He said the respites would last from three to five days.
“They have held this city together,” Nagin said.
New Orleans requires police to live inside the city limits, which means many of the officers lost relatives, spouses, children and their homes in the storm. Two officers have committed suicide.
“I am not going to have one more officer commit suicide,” Nagin said.
The city had 80 emergency dispatchers before the storm and now has 18. The mayor said the dispatchers had burned out after days of calls from desperate and desolate residents.
“They just couldn’t take it anymore,” Nagin said.
Nagin’s anger grew over what he described as the slow pace of federal relief efforts.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is under fire for a halting response in Katrina’s immediate aftermath, and FEMA director Michael D. Brown has been criticized by Louisiana officials as being out of touch.
Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, charged Sunday that FEMA officials had “cut all of our emergency lines” before they were reconnected by local sheriffs.
In an open letter to Bush, the editors of the Times-Picayune of New Orleans savaged the performance of FEMA and other federal officials.
“The people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach,” the letter read.
“We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.”
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), the daughter of a former New Orleans mayor, has long urged the Bush administration to provide more money for levee construction, but said that the funds were instead reduced. She said Sunday that she was growing increasingly tired of having Bush visit the region, accompanied by television cameras, rather than sending real help.
“Would the president please stop taking photo-ops,” she said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We are never going to get this fixed if he does not send us help now.”
She also objected to criticism by federal officials about local responses.
“If one person criticizes them or says one more thing, including the president of the United States, he will hear from me,” she said. “One more word about it after this show airs and I might likely have to punch him. Literally.”
Conceding that “some things didn’t work as well,” Chertoff said he thought FEMA officials had been on top of the hurricane’s approach before it hit Aug. 29, and added that he had confidence in FEMA chief Brown.
“Mike Brown talked about the need to take seriously this hurricane” before Katrina struck, Chertoff said in a CNN interview. “It was difficult to know where on the Gulf Coast it was going to land.”
The Times-Picayune reported Sunday that Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, said that Brown and Chertoff were in on electronic briefings given by his staff in advance of Hurricane Katrina and were advised of the storm’s catastrophic growth.
Mayfield said the strength of the storm and its devastating potential was stressed during both the briefings and in formal advisories, including warnings that Katrina’s storm surge could overtop New Orleans’ levees.
“We were briefing them way before landfall,” Mayfield told the newspaper. “It’s not like this was a surprise. We had in the advisories that the levee could be topped.”
Mayfield confirmed his account to The Times and added that “FEMA is taking some real hits.” He also described Brown as “one of the most dedicated public servants I know. It looks like he’s being set up to take a hit.”
FEMA is the main coordinating agency for search and rescue missions. Louisiana officials have been generally pleased with the role of the military and local volunteers. But officials in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes say their repeated requests to FEMA officials for help in staffing searches went unanswered for nearly a week.
The sky over southern Louisiana was again filled with Chinook helicopters Sunday as search teams accelerated their missions to rescue survivors. National Guard and Coast Guard search copters prowled all day close to the waterline, swooping down to haul up more famished residents.
Hovering over a flooded-out Vietnamese Catholic church near Lake Pontchartrain, one rescue unit repeatedly lowered a pulley-drawn harness, evacuating six parishioners and their priest. They spun slowly, clothes riffled by rotor wash, until rescuers hauled them up and were rewarded with elated hugs.
Coast Guard teams have extracted more than 15,000 people since Katrina’s assault a week ago, spokesman Lt. Mike Kellog said. The pace has been grueling, which Kellog knew all too well. “We pulled out 17 survivors,” he said.
Many of those airlifted out of harm’s way were taken to a field hospital at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where officials turned a Delta Blue terminal into a triage unit. Officials said 3,000 to 5,000 people had been treated at the unit, but fewer than 200 remained.
“In the beginning it was like trying to lasso an octopus. When we got here it was overwhelming,” said Jake Jacoby, a physician helping run the center.
Airport director Roy Williams said about 30 people had died, some of them elderly and ill. The bodies were being kept in refrigerated trucks set up as a temporary morgue.
The fatalities were among the first 59 of what is expected to be a grim reckoning for Louisiana. Of those deaths, 10 occurred at the Superdome and eight at the convention center.
Louis Cataldie, the state Health Department’s medical director for emergency response, said that identifying the bodies would be nearly as arduous as the recovery.
After a week in water clouded with debris and mud, the bodies have become difficult to identify, Cataldie said. Water has softened body tissue in a process known as “skin sloughing,” preventing recognition by relatives and friends.
“I don’t think visual identification will be a possibility,” Cataldie said. “They’ve just been in the water too long.” And because many medical and dental files are also underwater, officials will have to rely on more sophisticated -- but time-consuming -- print and DNA tracing.
A federal morgue with the capability of processing more than 2,000 corpses began operating in St. Gabriel, 65 miles northwest of New Orleans. Cataldie said it would be staffed by a team of 90 medical examiners and technicians and was already equipped with three large refrigerated trucks capable of preserving dozens of bodies.
Federal officials said Americans would have to brace for a grim ordeal. Indeed, the new Louisiana figure was in addition to at least 160 dead in Mississippi, a figure provided by Gov. Haley Barbour.
“We’re going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, got caught by the flood, people whose remains are going to be found in the streets,” Chertoff said. “It is going to be about as ugly of a scene as I think you can imagine.”
In Jefferson Parish, west and south of New Orleans, residents may be allowed to temporarily come home today. But there were conflicting reports about whether that had been canceled -- even as thousands of people were already amassing in line, hoping to see their homes.
By Sunday night, thousands of cars had jammed Interstate 10 from Baton Rouge southeast to New Orleans.
Chris Roberts, a Jefferson Parish councilman, said that Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco’s husband flew to New Orleans specifically to persuade Broussard to back away from the plan to allow residents to visit their homes. That attempt failed, Roberts said.
Roberts said he feared the parish, south of New Orleans, could degenerate into mayhem if people were allowed back in. The parish is averaging five or six major fires a day, he said. Parts are still covered in standing water, and there is no gas, water or electricity.
“I understand that people want to see their property,” he said. “But it’s not a wise idea. People are going to run out of gas. This is really not a safe place for people to be.”
Nagin said officers began going house-to-house in small teams looking for people who have thus far declined to leave the city. He acknowledged that some people did not want to leave but said he had not heard of anyone who had to be forcefully removed.
Nagin said he learned that $1 million worth of natural gas is seeping each day through countless leaks into the stagnant floodwater.
“You tell me. Should we let people stay in those conditions?” he said. “It’s not safe. It’s not healthy.”
Gold reported from New Orleans, King from Baton Rouge, La., and Serrano from Washington. Also contributing were Times staff writers Richard Fausett in New Orleans, Stephen Braun in Washington, Tony Perry in Houston and J. Michael Kennedy in Los Angeles. Also, Times researchers Lianne Hart contributed from Baton Rouge and Lynn Marshall from Seattle.
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How to help
The following agencies are among those providing assistance to hurricane victims:
* Adventist Community Services, (800) 381-7171
* American Red Cross, (800) HELP NOW [435-7669] English; (800) 257-7575 Spanish
* America’s Second Harvest, (800) 771-2303
* Catholic Charities USA Hurricane Relief, (800) 919-9338
* Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, (800) 848-5818
* Church World Service, (800) 297-1516
* Convoy of Hope, (417) 823-8998
* Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (800) 638-3522
* Humane Society of the United States, (888) 259-5431; (800) HUMANE1 [486-2631]
* Jewish Federation, (323) 761-8200
* Mennonite Disaster Service, (717) 859-2210
* Operation USA, (800) 678-7255
* Salvation Army, (800) SAL-ARMY [725-2769]
* United Methodist Committee on Relief, (800) 554-8583
* World Relief, (800) 535-5433
Source: Associated Press
Los Angeles Times