Much of Gulf Coast Is Crippled; Death Toll Rises After Hurricane
By JOSEPH B. TREASTER and N. R. KLEINFIELD
Published: August 31, 2005
(must register to NY Times to view original article)
NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 30 - A day after New Orleans thought it had narrowly
escaped the worst of Hurricane Katrina's wrath, water broke through two
levees on Tuesday and virtually submerged and isolated the city, causing
incalculable destruction and rendering it uninhabitable for weeks to come.
With bridges washed out, highways converted into canals, and power and
communications lines inoperable, government officials ordered everyone still
remaining out of the city. Officials began planning for the evacuation of
the Superdome, where about 10,000 refugees huddled in increasingly grim
conditions as water and food were running out and rising water threatened
The situation was so dire that late in the day the Pentagon ordered five
Navy ships and eight Navy maritime rescue teams to the Gulf Coast to bolster
relief operations. It also planned to fly in Swift boat rescue teams from
As rising water and widespread devastation hobbled rescue and recovery
efforts, the authorities could only guess at the death toll in New Orleans
and across the Gulf Coast. In Mississippi alone, officials raised the
official count of the dead to at least 100.
"It looks like Hiroshima is what it looks like," Gov. Haley Barbour said,
describing parts of Harrison County, Miss.
Across the region, rescue workers were not even trying to gather up and
count the dead, officials said, but pushed them aside for the time being as
they tried to find the living.
As the sweep of the devastation became clear, President Bush cut short his
monthlong summer vacation on Tuesday and returned to Washington, where he
will meet on Wednesday with a task force established to coordinate the
efforts of 14 federal agencies that will be involved in responding to the
The scope of the catastrophe caught New Orleans by surprise. A certain sense
of relief that was felt on Monday afternoon, after the eye of the storm
swept east of the city, proved cruelly illusory, as the authorities and
residents woke up Tuesday to a more horrifying result than had been
anticipated. Mayor Ray Nagin lamented that while the city had dodged the
worst-case scenario on Monday. Tuesday was "the second-worst-case scenario."
It was not the water from the sky but the water that broke through the
city's protective barriers that changed everything for the worse. New
Orleans, with a population of nearly 500,000, is protected from the
Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain by levees. North of downtown,
breaches in the levees sent the muddy waters of the lake pouring into the
Streets that were essentially dry in the hours immediately after the
hurricane passed were several feet deep in water on Tuesday morning. Even
downtown areas that lie on higher ground were flooded. The mayor said both
city airports were underwater.
Mayor Nagin said that one of the levee breaches was two to three blocks
long, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been dropping
3,000-pound sandbags into the opening from helicopters, as well as sea-land
containers with sand, to try to seal the break. Late Tuesday night, there
were reports that the rising waters had caused a nearby station that pumps
water out of the city to fail.
New Orleans is below sea level, and the mayor estimated that 80 percent of
the city was submerged, with the waters running as deep as 20 feet in some
places. The city government regrouped in Baton Rouge, 80 miles to the
Col. Terry Ebbert, the city's director of homeland security, said the
rushing waters had widened one of the breaches, making the repair work more
While the bulk of New Orleans's population evacuated before the storm, tens
of thousands of people chose to remain in the city, and efforts to evacuate
them were continuing. The authorities estimated that thousands of residents
had been plucked off rooftops, just feet from the rising water.
"The magnitude of the situation is untenable," said Gov. Kathleen Babineaux
Blanco of Louisiana. "It's just heartbreaking."
Looting broke out as opportunistic thieves cleaned out abandoned stores for
a second night. In one incident, officials said, a police officer was shot
and critically wounded.
"These are not individuals looting," Colonel Ebbert said. "These are large
groups of armed individuals."
Officials at the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security confirmed that
officials in Plaquemines and Jefferson Parishes had tried to call for
martial law, which is not authorized by the State Constitution.
Offering up howling winds of as much as 145 miles an hour, the hurricane hit
land in eastern Louisiana just after 6 a.m. Monday as a Category 4 storm,
the second-highest rating, qualifying it as one of the strongest to strike
the United States.
Preliminary damage estimates from insurance experts on Monday ranged from $9
billion to $16 billion, but they were pushed up past $25 billion on Tuesday,
which could make Hurricane Katrina the costliest in history, surpassing
Hurricane Andrew in 1992, with $21 billion in insured losses.
As the scope of the damage to oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico
became more apparent, energy prices rocketed to record highs. Experts
predicted that further increases were likely.
Floodwaters were still rising as much as three inches an hour in parts of
New Orleans late Tuesday. In other areas, they were beginning to subside.
"I don't want to alarm anyone that New Orleans is filling up like a bowl,"
Michael Brown, FEMA's director, said. "That isn't happening."
More than 10,000 people remained stranded in the Louisiana Superdome, which
was without power and surrounded by three to four feet of water. Swaths of
the roof had been peeled away by the powerful winds, and it was stifling
inside without air conditioning. Toilets were reported to be overflowing. A
woman with an 18-month-old baby said her last bottle of baby formula was
During the day, additional survivors were deposited at the Superdome by
rescuers, but the absence of food and power, not to mention the water
lapping at the doors, made their continued stay perilous. Hundreds of
critically-ill patients had to be evacuated out of Charity Hospital and
Tulane University Hospital because of the flooding.
At Tulane, they were removed by helicopter from the roof of a parking
garage. The staff of the Times-Picayune, which was able to publish only an
online version of its edition on Tuesday, was forced to flee the paper's
The Coast Guard estimated that about 1,200 people had been rescued Monday
and thousands more on Tuesday. Efforts were hindered by phone and cellphone
service being out in much of the city.
Getting food and water into the city was an urgent priority. Officials said
that there was only one way for emergency vehicles to get into parts of the
city to bring in supplies.
"We're racing the clock in terms of possible injury," said Michael Chertoff,
the national homeland security secretary. "We're racing the clock in terms
of illness, and we're racing the clock to get them food and water."
The hurricane, downgraded to a tropical depression by late Tuesday morning,
continued to putter along into adjoining states, though its teeth were gone.
It had left its mark on numerous Gulf Coast communities. In Mississippi, for
example, Gulfport was virtually gone, and Biloxi was severely damaged.
From the air, New Orleans was a shocking sight of utter demolition. Seen
from the vantage point of a Jefferson Parish sheriff's helicopter
transporting FEMA officials, vast stretches of the city resembled a
community of houseboats. Twenty-block neighborhoods were under water as high
as the roofs of three-story houses. One large building, the Galleria, had
most, if not all, of its 600 windows blown out.
Sections of Interstate 10, the principal artery through the city, had pieces
missing or misaligned, as if the highway were an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.
Parts of the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the world's longest
overwater highway bridge, were missing as well. Fires had broken out in
sundry buildings, and hundreds of thousands of people were without power.
One woman swam from her home on Monday and then walked through the night to
take shelter in a 24-hour bar in the French Quarter. Another left her
flooding house but could not persuade her elderly roommate to come with her.
Her roommate insisted, "God will take care of me."
People waded through waist-high water, looking to determine the fate of
their homes. Rescue workers, who were plucking people off roofs in rescue
cages, reported seeing bodies floating through the water. Mayor Nagin said
that as he flew over the city he saw bubbles in the water, which he said
seemed to signify natural gas leaks.
The mayor estimated it would be one to two weeks before the water could be
pumped out, and two to four weeks before evacuees could be permitted back
into the city. Another city official said it would be two months before the
Tens of thousands of people are expected to need temporary homes for
uncertain durations. The authorities were looking at renting apartments,
putting people up in trailers and establishing floating dormitories.
Parishes east of the city were also battered. The president of Plaquemines
Parish, on the southeastern tip of Louisiana, announced that the lower half
of the parish had been reclaimed by the river. St. Bernard Parish, adjacent
to New Orleans, was largely rooftops and water.
In South Diamondhead, Miss., on St. Louis Bay, all that remained of the
entire community of 200 homes was pilings. Boats were stuck in trees.
"Yeah, we caught it," said Randy Keel, 46. "We basically got what we're
Everyone was "walking around like zombies," Mr. Keel said.
Some Mississippi casinos, which had been floating on barges, were swept half
a mile inland. An oil platform in the gulf was transported within a hundred
yards of Dauphin Island, the barrier island at the south end of Mobile
County, Ala., and much of that island was underwater.
Peter Teahen, the national spokesman for the American Red Cross, said: "We
are looking now at a disaster above any magnitude that we've seen in the
United States. We've been saying that the response is going to be the
largest Red Cross response in the history of the organization."
Meanwhile, the evacuated survivors tried to accept the images they saw on
television. Vonda Simmons, 39, fled New Orleans with relatives on Saturday
afternoon to stay with friends in Baton Rouge. When she saw footage of the
hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, where she lived, she assumed she had lost
everything but she accepted fate's hand.
"We have the most prized possession," Ms. Simmons said. "We have each