As flood waters receded, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin authorised police and the US military to force the evacuation of all residents who refuse to heed orders to leave the dark, dangerous city.
Nagin’s emergency declaration released late yesterday targets those still in the city unless they have been designated by government officials as helping with the relief effort.
The move comes after some citizens bluntly told authorities who had come to deliver them from the flooded metropolis that they would not leave their homes and property.
An estimated 10,000 residents are believed to still be in New Orleans, and some have been holed up in their homes for more than a week.
While acknowledging the emergency declaration, police Capt. Marlon Defillo said forced removal of citizens had not yet begun. He said that officers who were visiting homes were still reminding people that police may not be able to rescue them if they stay.
“That would be a PR nightmare for us,” Defillo said of any forced evacuations. “That’s an absolute last resort.”
Meanwhile, engineers struggled to drain the saucer of a city of billions of gallons of water, a Herculean task that could take weeks – if they are lucky.
The Army Corps of Engineers said the timetable ranges from three weeks to nearly three months, depending on a string of variables, including rainfall, the still-unknown condition of the pumps abandoned to Hurricane Katrina, and whether the system can withstand the flotsam of broken buildings, trees, trash and corpses.
By late yesterday, Corps officials said only five of New Orleans’ normal contingent of 148 drainage pumps were operating.
Work has also been impeded by sporadic gunfire coming from “criminals with guns,” said Col. Richard Wagenaar, the Corps’ chief district engineer.
The contractors are “getting used to it and that’s pretty scary,” Wagenaar said.
Despite complications, “we have to get the water out of the city or the nightmare will continue,” said Louisiana Environmental Secretary Mike McDaniel. He said the water will be pumped into Lake Pontchartrain even though it was fouled with sewage, heavy metals, petrol and other dangerous substances.
The pumping began after the Corps used hundreds of sandbags and rocks over the Labor Day weekend to close a 200-foot gap in the 17th Street Canal levee that burst in the aftermath of the storm and swamped 80 percent of the below sea-level city.
Following an aerial tour yesterday, Nagin said the water was dropping ever so slightly, and he estimated it covered only 60 per cent of the city.
“Even in areas where the water was as high as the rooftops, I started to see parts of the buildings,” he said, adding, “I’m starting to see rays of light.”
But he also warned of the horrors that could be revealed when the waters recede. “It’s going to be awful and it’s going to wake the nation up again,” said Nagin, who a day earlier upped his estimate of the death toll in his city to as much as 10,000.
With the water dropping, military and police turned their attention to evacuating the streets. Among those refusing to leave was 69-year-old John Ebanks, who waved off would-be rescuers from a porch stocked with food, mosquito spray and other supplies.
“You’ve got to protect your property, that’s the main thing,” Ebanks said. “This is all I’ve got. I’m pretty damn old to start over.”