Friday, September 02, 2005

Local Official Blames FEMA For 'National Disgrace,' Mayor Issues 'SOS'

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By: Staff MSNBC

NEW ORLEANS - Fights and fires broke out, corpses lay out in the open, and rescue helicopters and law enforcement officers were shot at as flood - stricken New Orleans slipped toward anarchy Thursday.

"This is a desperate SOS," the mayor said.

Anger mounted across the city as thousands of storm victims grew increasingly hungry, desperate and tired of waiting for buses to take them out.

Officials said thousands more National Guardsmen were being sent to the city, and Congress planned a special session Thursday night to approve emergency aid. But across the city, residents complained that aid was not arriving and a local official blamed the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"This is a national disgrace," said Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans' emergency operations. "FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control," Ebbert said. "We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans." 

"We have got a mayor who has been pushing and asking but we're not getting supplies," he said. He said the evacuation was almost entirely a Louisiana operation. "This is not a FEMA operation. I haven't seen a single FEMA guy."

Mayor Ray Nagin, in issuing his dire plea in a statement to CNN, said: "Right now we are out of resources at the convention center and don't anticipate enough buses. Currently the convention center is unsanitary and unsafe and we are running out of supplies for 15,000 to 25,000 people." 

Dead bodies outside center Outside the center, people complained that they  were evacuated, taken to the convention hall by bus, dropped off and given nothing.

At least seven bodies were scattered outside, and hungry people broke through the steel doors to a food service entrance and began pushing out pallets of water and juice and whatever else they could find.

An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered with a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.

"I don't treat my dog like that," Daniel Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. "I buried my dog."

"You can do everything for other countries but you can't do nothing for your own people," he said. "You can go overseas with the military but you can't get them down here."

The street outside the center, above the floodwaters, smelled of urine and feces, and was choked with dirty diapers, old bottles and garbage.

"We are out here like pure animals. We don't have help," said the Rev. Isaac Clark, 68.

People there, some holding crying babies or elderly barely able to stand up, shouted for help as TV news crews passed by.

Doctors at two desperately crippled hospitals with 360 patients called The Associated Press pleading for rescue, saying they were nearly out of food and power and had been forced to move patients to higher floors to escape looters.

"We have been trying to call the mayor's office, we have been trying to call the governor's office. ... We have tried to use any inside pressure we can. We are turning to you. Please help us," said Dr. Norman McSwain, chief of trauma surgery at Charity Hospital. 

Other parts of the city saw similar desperation. "We need help," Polly Boudreaux, clerk of the St. Bernard Parish Council, told WAFB-TV in a phone interview in which she broke down crying. 

"We're just been absolutely devastated," she said, and many residents still need to be rescued.

Little outside aid has reached the parish, she added. "We are not seeing

Mob fears, gunshots While most stranded residents were orderly, police warned reporters to be careful given the desperation.

"We were told don't drink or eat in public as it could lead to a mob situation," NBC's Michelle Hofland said. "We were told that by sundown to get out of here."

Federal rescue workers were pulled back from some areas of the city where gunfire was heard or reported, a Department of Homeland Security official told NBC News.

"Hospitals are trying to evacuate," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan, spokesman at the city emergency operations center. "At every one of them, there are reports that as the helicopters come in people are shooting at them. There are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, "You better come get my family."

Police Capt. Ernie Demmo said a National Guard military policeman was shot in the leg as the two scuffled for the MP's rifle. The man was arrested.

"These are good people. These are just scared people," Demmo said.

Superdome airlift suspended The situation at the Superdome, where thousands of people were being evacuated by bus to the Houston Astrodome, also deteriorated. Paramedics were alarmed by the sight of people with guns.

A crowd broke through a line of National Guardsmen and were stopped by 19 heavily armed state policemen, all in Kevlar vests. 

State police Officer K.W. Miller told a reporter, "You better move to the back. This is ready to break. We've been here since 6 a.m. and this is getting worse and worse."

"There's so many people there. It's a desperate situation with no air conditioning and no water," added Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Pete Schneider.

Fights broke out. A fire erupted in a trash chute inside the dome, but a National Guard commander said it did not affect the evacuation.

An air ambulance service official said helicopter transfers of the sick and injured were suspended after report of a helicopter being fired on overnight.

Able-bodied evacuees were still being moved by bus to Houston's Astrodome, the National Guard said, correcting a Guard official who said that operation was on hold as well.

Texas on Thursday announced that it would house 25,000 more evacuees in San Antonio.

We need a thousand' National Guard The Superdome helicopter operation was suspended "until they gain control of the Superdome," said Richard Zuschlag, head of Acadian Ambulance, which was handling the evacuation of sick and injured people.

He said the National Guard told him that it was sending 100 military police officers to gain control. "That's not enough," Zuschlag. "We need a thousand."

Medics were calling him and crying for help because they were so scared of people with guns at the Superdome, he added. 

Zuschlag said shots were fired at a military helicopter over the Superdome before daybreak, but a National Guard officer said he had a report of just one shot being fired at the helicopter.

Zuschlag added that when another evacuation helicopter tried to land at a hospital in the outlying town of Kenner overnight, the pilot reported that 100 people were on the landing pad, and some of them had guns.

"He was frightened and would not land," Zuschlag said.

Bush to visit Friday President Bush will tour the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast region on Friday and has asked former Presidents Clinton and Bush to lead a private fund- raising campaign to help victims recover, the White House said Thursday.

An additional 10,000 National Guard troops from across the country were ordered into the Gulf Coast to shore up security, rescue and relief operations. The new units brought the number of troops dedicated to the effort to more than 28,000, in what may be the largest military response to a natural disaster.

Looting has also been a problem in Mississippi.

"The truth is, a terrible tragedy like this brings out the best in most people, brings out the worst in some people," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on NBC's "Today" show Thursday. "We're trying to deal with looters as ruthlessly as we can get our hands on them."

New Orleans police focus on looters In New Orleans, Nagin on Wednesday night ordered the city's 1,500 police officers to leave their search-and-rescue mission and focus on stopping the looting.

Police were asking residents to give up any firearms before they evacuated neighborhoods because officers desperately needed the firepower: Some officers who had been stranded on the roof of a hotel said they were shot at.

Nagin called for an all-out evacuation of the city's remaining residents. Asked how many people died, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."

Struggle to plug the breached levees With most of the city under water, Army engineers struggled to plug New Orleans' breached levees with giant sandbags and concrete barriers, and authorities drew up plans to clear out the tens of thousands of remaining people and practically abandon the below-sea-level city.

Nagin said there will be a "total evacuation of the city. We have to. The city will not be functional for two or three months." And he said people would not be allowed back into their homes for at least a month or two. 

If the mayor's death-toll estimate holds true, it would make Katrina the worst natural disaster in the United States since at least the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which have blamed for anywhere from about 500 to 6,000 deaths. Katrina would also be the nation's deadliest hurricane since 1900, when a storm in Galveston, Texas, killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people.

In Mississippi, meantime, bodies are starting to pile up at the morgue in hard-hit Harrison County. Forty corpses have been brought to the morgue already, and officials expect the death toll in the county to climb well above 100.

Tempers were beginning to flare in the aftermath of the storm. Police said a man fatally shot his sister in the head over a bag of ice in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Full magnitude unclear The federal government dispatched helicopters, warships and elite SEAL water-rescue teams in one of the biggest relief operations in U.S. history, aimed at plucking residents from rooftops in the last of the "golden 72 hours" rescuers say is crucial to saving lives. 

In addition to the Astrodome solution, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was considering putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks, and so-called floating dormitories.

The death toll has reached at least 121 in Mississippi alone. But the full magnitude of the disaster had been unclear for days  in part, because some areas in both coastal Mississippi and New Orleans are still unreachable, but also because authorities' first priority has been the living.

In Mississippi, for example, ambulances roamed through the passable streets of devastated places such as Biloxi, Gulfport, Waveland and Bay St. Louis, in some cases speeding past corpses in hopes of saving people trapped in flooded and crumbled buildings.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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