Hurricane Rita poured more water into New Orleans for a second day today and inundated fishing villages along Louisiana’s coast, where dozens of people were rescued from homes swamped by up to 6 feet of water.
“We need help now,” said Sherry Adam of Lafitte, about 20 miles south of New Orleans.
Rescuers in boats were pulling hundreds of residents from flooded homes along a remote stretch of swamp land between the city and the Gulf of Mexico. Seawater poured over levees and into homes.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Adam, 55. “This land will be gone in no time.”
Residents were taken to a bridge, where they were placed on National Guard trucks and transported to a nearby high school on dry land.
By this morning, the storm dumped 7.3 inches of rain on Baton Rouge and 4.7 inches on Lafayette. The New Orleans airport in Kenner got 2 inches.
Although New Orleans escaped the worst of the storm, engineers said they need at least two days to pump water from the most heavily flooded neighbourhoods after they plugged a series of levee breaches.
“The surge got higher than we expected in the canal,” said Dan Hitchings, an engineer overseeing recovery operations for the Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s still spilling in there this morning.”
The corps planned to drop sand bags and boulders into several large gaps that appeared yesterday in a part of the Industrial Canal levee that had been patched after Hurricane Katrina.
Rita’s storm surges eroded part of the levee, sending water rushing into the city’s Ninth Ward neighbourhood, which already was badly damaged and mostly abandoned.
Only about 3 inches of rain was expected in the city throughout the day from Rita’s outer bands, relieving fears that rains would overwhelm the city’s already battered pump system and produce even worse flooding.
South of New Orleans in low-lying Jefferson Parish, a storm surge of 6 to 7 feet swamped some neighbourhoods that escaped much of the flooding from Katrina, said Albert Creppel, a constable in the town of Jean Lafitte. Creppel took his first boatload of people to higher ground about 2am.
“The water is pouring in back there,” Creppel said. “We’ve got breaks all over the levies.”
When Mark and Peggy Granier bought their house in Lafitte 10 years ago, the first thing they did was have it raised.
“When you live here, you’re always worried about water,” said Mark Granier, who watched trucks hauling sandbags and rescue boats past his house, headed to those lower-lying areas.
Additional flooding remained a concern in New Orleans even though the expected rainfall was less than originally forecast. Lake Pontchartrain was 6 feet above normal.
Flooding inundated the Ninth Ward, which has been all but empty since Katrina. The water covered piles of rubble and mud-caked cars, rising swiftly to the top of first-floor windows.
“It’s like looking at a murder,” Quentrell Jefferson, an evacuee from the Ninth Ward, said as he watched news of the flooding in his neighbourhood from a church in Lafayette, 125 miles to the west. “The first time is bad. After that, you numb up.”
Rita made landfall early today as a Category 3 storm just east of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana line, more than 275 miles from New Orleans.
Despite the flooding in New Orleans, meteorologists said the gravest concern was in south-western Louisiana communities, particularly the port city of Lake Charles.
Friday’s storm surge in New Orleans was both stronger and earlier than expected, apparently coming through waterways south-east of the city, said Col. Richard Wager, the Army Corps of Engineers’ district chief in New Orleans. Water poured over piles of gravel and sandbags in the damaged Industrial Canal levee despite efforts to build it up.
Farther north, water 6 to 8 inches deep streamed into homes south of Lake Pontchartrain, spouting from beneath two gravel-and-rock patches on the London Avenue Canal levee. Corps engineers said they expected the leaks.
The problems would set back levee repairs at least three weeks, Wager said, but June is still the target for getting them back to pre-Katrina strength.
The additional flooding will complicate the search for the dead left by Hurricane Katrina, which struck on August 29.
“It’s going to make it a lot tougher,” said Richard Dier, a FEM. Group supervisor who oversees hundreds of people searching for bodies. “We’d like to start where we left off, but my men don’t submerge or go into houses with deep water.”
On Friday, Quatrain’s death toll stood at 841 in Louisiana and 1,078 across the Gulf Coast.