One week after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, miles-long lines of vehicles crawled into suburban New Orleans today as residents were allowed to return to salvage what was left of their homes. New Orleans’ mayor warned that 10,000 people may have died.
President George Bush began his second trip to the region since the storm hit, landing in Baton Rouge late in the morning to start another inspection tour and consultations with federal and local officials.
Traffic began moving into Jefferson Parish, west of New Orleans, at about 6am. A curfew was set for 6pm, and residents were told they could stay until Wednesday.
Among those returning was Diane Dempsey, a 59-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel who stopped at the water’s edge less than a mile from the house where she grew up and where her aunt lives.
“I’m going to pay someone to get me back there, anything I have to do,” she said, sobbing while standing amid boats beached on Veterans Highway. “A lot of these people built these houses anticipating some flood water but nobody imagined this.”
Most of the single-story bungalow homes in her neighbourhood had water nearly to the rooflines.
Homes in the most exclusive neighbourhood of the parish, Old Metaire, had little structural damage but some of the worst flooding. Along rows of palatial, six-bedroom homes, a few windows were broken and the live oaks survived but the water rippled up to front-door knobs.
The suburban parish, which has 460,000 residents, has been closed since a mandatory evacuation just before Katrina hit. Wide portions of Metairie and Kenner suffered heavy flooding, and authorities said thousands of homes were damaged.
A week after the storm, a definitive death toll remained elusive. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned on NBC television that “it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have 10,000” dead.
Despite the grim estimate, he was more upbeat than in previous days, when he railed against the federal government and broke down sobbing during a radio interview.
“We’re making great progress now, the momentum has picked up. I’m starting to see some critical tasks being completed,” he told NBC.
“The 17th Street canal is about or was about 84% closed in yesterday afternoon. We have more troops arriving, so we’re starting to make the kind of progress that I kind of expected earlier.”
Army Lt Gen Russel Honore told ABC’s Good Morning America that fewer than 10,000 people remained in the city, based on aerial reconnaissance.
“This is not a city under siege,” he added on NBC. ”This city needs help from the big people in America and its technology to get back on its feet. We are focused on the future. We have to finish the search-and-rescue and provide food and water from an area from Mobile (Alabama) to the east side of New Orleans, up to I-20 in Mississippi. … There are people there that need help. We will do the best we can to get it to them.”
Yesterday, as authorities struggled to keep order across New Orleans, gunmen opened fire on a group of contractors on a bridge, rescues of stranded residents continued and the flood waters began to recede, leaving the grisly task of collecting bodies.
The Times-Picayune, Louisiana’s largest newspaper, published an open letter to Bush, called for the firing of every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We’re angry, Mr President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry,” the editorial said. “Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.”
“Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially,” the letter said. “No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced.”
Violence boiled in New Orleans over when 14 contractors on their way to help plug the breach in the 17th Street Canal came under fire as they travelled across a bridge under police escort, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. Police shot at eight people carrying guns, killing five or six, Deputy Police Chief Riley said. None of the contractors was injured, authorities said.
Besides the lawlessness, civilian deaths and uncertainty about their families, New Orleans’ police have had to deal with suicides in their ranks. Two officers took their lives, including the department spokesman, Paul Accardo, who died Saturday, according to Riley. Both shot themselves in the head, he said.
A steady stream of reinforcements for police poured down the interstates toward New Orleans late last night and early today – long convoys of police cars, blue lights flashing, emblazoned with emblems from scattered police, sheriff, and other jurisdictions, in and out of state.
Nagin said today he was arranging to rotate out beleaguered emergency workers, who have been working virtually around the clock since before the storm hit.
He said police officers, firefighters and their families would get five or more days in cities with large numbers of hotel rooms – Atlanta and Las Vegas in particular. In addition to rest and relaxation, he said, they will have time to assess their personal situation since many lost homes and relatives. Counsellors will be available, he said.
At two of the city’s damaged levees, engineers continued making repairs that would allow pumps to begin draining the floodwaters. “The water is receding now. We just have a long ways to go,” Mike Rogers, a disaster relief co-ordinator with the Army Corps of Engineers, said yesterday.
Hundreds of thousands of people already have been evacuated, seeking safety in Texas, Tennessee and other states. With more than 230,000 already in Texas, Gov Rick Perry ordered emergency officials to begin preparations to airlift some of them to other states that have offered help.
What will happen to the refugees in the long term was not known.
In Jefferson Parish, residents were allowed back as long as they showed a valid ID proving residency, had food, had a full tank of gas and didn’t drink the water.
Parish President Aaron Broussard warned residents that they would find all traffic signals destroyed, no open stores and a dusk-to-dawn curfew. He recommended that women not come alone.
Among those returning was Jack Rabito, 61, a restaurant-bar owner, who bought his home in 1965, and like Dempsey didn’t have flood insurance. “I won’t be getting inside today unless I get some scuba gear,” he said, waiting with Dempsey for a ride in a boat to get to his home.
In Old Metairie, residents were angry that the levees were not designed to withstand a hurricane stronger than Category 3. Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall.
“My home didn’t lose a shingle, but it’s got six feet of water in it,” said Bobby Patrick, a resident who returned from Houston.