Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Katrina’s full wrath still being felt as body count rises

Katrina’s full wrath still being felt as body count rises: "By Holbrook Mohr
The Associated Press

By Holbrook Mohr
The Associated Press

GULFPORT, Miss. — Rescuers in boats and helicopters searched for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and brought victims, wet and bedraggled, to shelters today as the extent of the damage across the Gulf Coast became ever clearer. Mississippi’s governor said the death toll in one county alone could be as high as 80.

“At first light, the devastation is greater than our worst fears. It’s just totally overwhelming,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the morning after Katrina howled ashore with winds of 145 mph and engulfed thousands of homes in one of the most punishing storms on record in the United States.

In New Orleans, meanwhile, water began rising in the streets Tuesday morning, apparently because of a break on a levee along a canal leading to Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans lies mostly below sea level and is protected by a network of pumps, canals and levees. Many of the pumps were not working this morning.

Officials planned to use helicopters to drop 3,000-pound sandbags into the breach, and expressed confidence the problem could be solved within hours.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi said there were unconfirmed reports of up to 80 deaths in Harrison County — which includes devastated Gulfport and Biloxi — and the number was likely to rise. An untold number of people were also feared dead in Louisiana. At least five other deaths across the Gulf Coast were blamed on Katrina.

“We know that there is a lot of the coast that we have not been able to get to,” the governor said on NBC’s “Today Show.” “I hate to say it, but it looks like it is a very bad disaster in terms of human life.”

Along the Gulf Coast, tree trunks, downed power lines and trees, and chunks of broken concrete in the streets prevented rescuers from reaching victims. Swirling water in many areas contained hidden dangers. Crews worked to clear highways. Along one Mississippi highway, motorists themselves used chainsaws to remove trees blocking the road.

Tens of thousands of people will need shelter for weeks if not months, said Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And once the floodwaters go down, “it’s going to be incredibly dangerous” because of structural damage to homes, diseases from animal carcasses and chemicals in homes, he said.

Officials warned people against trying to return to their homes, saying that would only interfere with the rescue and recovery efforts.
More than 1,600 Mississippi National Guardsmen were activated to help with the recovery, and the Alabama Guard planned to send two battalions to Mississippi.

“We know that last night we had over 300 folks that we could confirm were on tops of roofs and waiting for our assistance. We pushed hard all throughout the night. We hoisted over 100 folks last night just in the Mississippi area. Our crews over New Orleans probably did twice that,” Capt. Dave Callahan of the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mississippi said on ABC.

National Guardsmen brought in people from outlying areas to the Superdome in the backs of big 2½-ton Army trucks. Louisiana’s wildlife enforcement department also brought people in on the backs of their pickups. Some were wet, some were in wheelchairs, some were holding babies and nothing else.

In New Orleans, a city of 480,000 that was mostly evacuated over the weekend as Katrina closed in, those who stayed behind faced another, delayed threat: rising water. Failed pumps and levees apparently sent water from Lake Pontchartrain coursing through the streets.

The rising water forced one New Orleans hospital to move patients to the Louisiana Superdome, where some 10,000 people had taken shelter, and prompted the staff of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper to abandon its offices, authorities said.

Downtown streets that were relatively clear in the hours after the storm were filled with 1 to 1½ feet of water this morning. Water was knee-deep around the Superdome. Canal Street was literally a canal. Water lapped at the edge of the French Quarter. Clumps of red ants floated in the gasoline-fouled waters downtown.

“It’s a very slow rise, and it will remain so until we plug that breach. I think we can get it stabilized in a few hours,” said Terry Ebbert, New Orleans’ homeland security chief.

As for the death toll in Louisiana, the governor said only: “We have no counts whatsoever, but we know many lives have been lost.”

The biggest known cluster of deaths was at the Quiet Water Beach apartments in Biloxi, a red-brick beachfront complex of about 100 units. Harrison County, Miss., emergency operations center spokesman Jim Pollard said about 30 people died there.

“This is our tsunami,” Mayor A. J. Holloway of Biloxi, Miss., told The Biloxi Sun Herald.

Joy Schovest, 55, was in the apartment complex with her boyfriend, Joe Calvin, when the water began rising. They stayed despite a mandatory evacuation order.

“The water got higher and higher,” she said, breaking into tears. “It pushed all the doors open and we swam out. We grabbed a lady and pulled her out the window and then we swam with the current. It was terrifying. You should have seen the cars floating around us. We had to push them away when we were trying to swim.”

Teresa Kavanagh, 35, of Biloxi, shook her head is disbelief as she took photographs of the damage in her hometown.

“Total devastation. Apartment complexes are wiped clean. We’re going to rebuild, but it’s going to take long time. Houses that withstood Camille are nothing but slab now,” she said. Hurricane Camille killed 256 people in Louisiana and Mississippi in 1969.

The hurricane knocked out power to more than 1 million people from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, and authorities said it could be two months before electricity is restored to everyone.

Oil prices jumped by more than $3 a barrel today, climbing above $70 a barrel, amid uncertainty about the extent of the damage to the Gulf region’s refineries and drilling platforms.

By midday, Katrina was downgraded to a tropical depression, with winds about 35 mph. It was moving northeast through Tennessee at around 21 mph.

Forecasters said that as the storm moves north over the next few days, it could swamp the Tennessee and Ohio valleys with a potentially ruinous 8 inches or more of rain. On Monday, Katrina’s remnants spun off tornadoes and other storms in Georgia that smashed dozens of buildings and were blamed for at least one death.

According to preliminary assessments by AIR Worldwide Corp., a risk assessment company, the insurance industry faces as much as $26 billion in claims from Katrina. That would make Katrina more expensive than the previous record-setting storm, Hurricane Andrew, which caused some $21 billion in insured losses in 1992 to property in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

Mike Spencer of Gulfport made the mistake of trying to ride out the storm in his house. He told NBC that he used his grandson’s little surfboard to make his way around the house as the water rose around him.

Finally, he said, “as the house just filled up with water, it forced me into the attic, and then I ended up kicking out the wall and climbing up to a tree because the houses around me were just disappearing.”

He said he wrapped himself around a tree branch and waited four or five hours.

Anne Anderson said she lost her family home in Gulfport.

“My family’s an old Mississippi family. I had antiques, 150 years old or more, they’re all gone. We have just basically a slab,” she told NBC. She added: “Behind us we have a beautiful sunrise and sunset, and that is going to be what I’m going to miss the most, sitting on the porch watching those.”

Associated Press reporters Mary Foster, Allen G. Breed, Brett Martel, Adam Nossiter and Jay Reeves contributed to this report.


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