Police officials threatened Wednesday to resort to forced evacuations by the end of the week to clear out residents who had not left, pointing to environmental tests warning of dangerous bacteria levels in the floodwaters.
As health authorities joined New Orleans and Louisiana officials in urging the city’s estimated 10,000 holdouts to leave their homes, Bush administration officials said they would earmark $51.8 billion in new funding to speed help to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Amid simmering anger about the federal government’s halting response, congressional leaders formed a joint House-Senate committee to investigate the breakdowns after the storm hit Aug. 29.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the inquiry would scrutinize government performance across the board. “The initial response to Hurricane Katrina was unacceptable at the local, state and federal levels,” he said.
Democratic lawmakers had pressed for an independent panel along the lines of the 9/11 commission, which found pervasive government failures leading to the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and the Pentagon. “I don’t think the government should be investigating itself,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) said.
But Frist said he and Republican House Majority Leader J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had settled on a bipartisan panel of senior congressional leaders to “do all we can to learn from this tragedy.” The inquiry is to be completed by Feb. 15.
Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- who is under fire for the agency’s slow response to the flooding -- said Wednesday that scores of police and volunteer firefighters from around the nation, as well as trucks loaded with donated water, were even now being prevented from entering New Orleans while troops conduct house-to-house searches.
“They can’t just yet,” Brown said during a briefing in Baton Rouge. “There is going to come this natural time when we will release this floodgate of cops and firefighters who want to help. It’s the same for anyone who wants to volunteer -- we have over 50,000 offers of donations from the private sector. It has to be coordinated in such a way that it helps.”
Numerous state and local officials in Louisiana have accused FEMA of making the situation worse with red tape and a hesitant response immediately after Katrina slammed into the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
“I’m asking Congress, please don’t send any more money to FEMA,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a staunch critic of the agency. “Send it directly to the local officials.” But White House officials said $50 billion of the new aid package, supplementing $10.5 billion approved last week, would be routed to FEMA.
Ripples from the flooding, which left as many as 1 million people homeless and untold numbers dead, continued to shake the nation’s economy. Louisiana emergency officials said Wednesday that the disaster could cost the state at least $100 billion. And the Congressional Budget Office predicted 400,000 jobs would be lost through the end of the year, with privately insured losses topping $30 billion.
The death count stood at 83 in Louisiana by Wednesday morning, and 196 bodies had been found in Mississippi. But there were growing indications that the toll could be staggering. A temporary warehouse morgue in rural St. Gabriel that had been prepared to take 1,000 bodies was being readied to handle 5,000. State officials said federal emergency teams had amassed more than 25,000 body bags.
The scope of the disaster became more apparent in St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans, which was hit last week by swells up to 40 feet high, parish President Henry “Junior” Rodriguez said. State Rep. Nita Hutter said that 30 people had died at a flooded nursing home in Chalmette when the staff abandoned elderly residents in their beds. Rep. Charlie Melancon has reported that more than 100 people died at a dockside warehouse while they waited for rescuers to ferry them to safety.
As federal disaster mortuary response teams began collecting bodies and loading them into a refrigerated truck, Rodriguez said on New Orleans television station WWL that at least 67 corpses -- included those from the nursing home -- had been found.
“There’s going to be more than that,” he said wearily.
Sections of St. Bernard that were submerged several days ago were nearly dry Wednesday, but they were covered by a black film of oil sludge. In the 9th Ward of New Orleans, floodwaters receded and Navy officials said search and rescue units were able to scrap some operations.
Police and military officials were focused on saving the lives of those still holed up in the shells of eroding houses and apartments. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin is counting on a toughly worded evacuation order he signed Tuesday night to persuade thousands of residents to leave.
Nagin instructed police and National Guard troops “to compel the evacuation of all persons from the city of New Orleans, regardless of whether such persons are on private property or do not desire to leave.”
But Art Jones, a senior official with the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said Louisiana State Police troopers and National Guard units in New Orleans had no plans to participate in forced evacuations.
“We personally will not force anyone out of their homes,” Jones said at a briefing, adding that “for their own common sense, they should get out as quick as they can.”
Louisiana’s governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, has authority over National Guard troops in the state, and the federal Posse Comitatus act prevents active-duty troops from performing any domestic law enforcement unless authorized by the president.
Mark Smith, a spokesman for Louisiana Homeland Security, said Nagin would have to formally request state authorities to allow National Guard troops to join forced evacuations. So far, Smith added, Nagin has not made that request.
“It is still up to our discretion whether we would support the request,” Smith said. “We are not required by law to provide military troops to force people from their homes.”
Without help from Guard units, the toughened stance would be left to New Orleans’ exhausted, demoralized police force, which has shrunk to 1,000 officers after more than 200 desertions in the last week.
With help or without, senior police officials said, they are ready to compel people from their homes.
Supt. Eddie Compass said the mayor’s threat had already persuaded “thousands of people, who want to voluntarily evacuate at this time.”
“Once they are all out,” Compass said, “then we’ll concentrate our forces on mandatory evacuation.” He added, choosing his words carefully, that police preferred to use the “minimal amount of force. If you are somebody who is 350 pounds, it will take more force than if you are somebody who weighs 150 pounds.”
The order applies to the inundated eastern wards and the lightly damaged French Quarter and Garden District. It exempts Algiers and other communities south of the Mississippi River, known as the West Bank, which were largely spared from flooding. The mayor has said that standing water still covers 60% of New Orleans.
People removed from their homes would be placed in police custody but not arrested, officials said. They would be taken to military staging areas, then airlifted to shelters in other states.
Police Capt. Marlon Defillo said officials were worried about people in several public housing projects in eastside wards, including Lafitte, B.W. Cooper and St. Bernard.
Scores of people have taken refuge above floodwaters on upper floors in structures that can be reached only by boat, he said.
Mike Ferebreni, 42, was still clinging to his home in the lower 9th Ward, where the water level was low and damage minimal. With plenty of food and water, Ferebreni said he would eventually leave, but grudgingly. He fears that once easygoing citizens like him are gone, police will have to take on hard cases who have a tendency toward violence.
“It’s going to be a free-for-all,” he said.
During the last visit by police, Ferebreni said, officers told him health officials were going to cloud the city with a toxic spray to kill mosquitoes. That was enough for him.
But floodwaters polluted by sewage, bodies, garbage and silt pose a far more immediate danger, environmental and public health officials warned Wednesday.
Preliminary tests of the water showed dangerous levels of bacteria that threaten anyone who comes in contact with it, Environmental Protection Agency officials said. “Every single one of the samples hit the maximum,” EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said.
The E. coli and coliform bacteria counts were so high they exceeded the ability of testing equipment to measure them, Johnson said. Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, was blunt in her warning: “For the evacuees who haven’t left the city yet, you must do so.”
CDC officials also confirmed that at least four flood victims had died of bacterial infections caused by the water in New Orleans and other hard-hit towns. They appeared to have been infected with Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, a water-borne pathogen related to the bacteria that cause cholera.
In other developments related to Katrina’s aftermath:
* Fires continued to burn intermittently throughout New Orleans. Fire Supt. Charles Parent said that 57 blazes had erupted during the last week and that firefighters had responded to 111 gas leaks.
Officials have doused the fires but allowed the leaks to vent, concerned that if they were stopped up, the pressure could ignite explosions.
* Hundreds of cash-strapped evacuees lined up at the Louisiana Department of Social Services in Baton Rouge to apply for temporary food stamp allotments. More than 100,000 families have applied in the last week, a massive increase over the usual rate of 1,300 per month.
At the same time, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the federal agency would hand out debit cards worth $2,000 to every adult victim of Katrina.
* Flood walls held at New Orleans’ 17th Street Canal and London Street Canal levees as water continued to slowly flow out of the city back into Lake Pontchartrain. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Dan Hitchings said 23 of 148 pumps were operational. The agency has installed three portable pumps and 160 more are being prepared, he said.
Gold reported from New Orleans, Cart from Baton Rouge and Braun from Washington. Also contributing were Times staff writers Richard Fausset and Greg Miller in New Orleans, Nicholas Riccardi in Baton Rouge, James Gerstenzang in Washington and Marla Cone in Los Angeles, as well as Times researcher Lynn Marshall in Seattle.