By Scott Gold, David Zucchino and Stephen Braun Times Staff Writers
2 hours, 55 minutes ago
NEW ORLEANS — Search teams pressing to evacuate the living and find the dead after a full week under the high-water sway of Hurricane Katrina found their efforts complicated Monday by the refusal of hundreds of residents to leave the paralyzed city.
President Bush returned Monday for a second tour of the disaster zone, praising emergency workers in Baton Rouge, La., and stressing the work of religious charities during a visit to a church packed with evacuees. Federal officials said relief operations were proceeding apace, but Bush’s tour was soured by an ongoing feud with Louisiana’s governor over who would manage National Guard troops in the state.
A senior New Orleans police official said Monday that some 10,000 inhabitants remained in the city, hidden inside flooded residences, apartments and housing projects, surviving on foraged scraps and food drops by the military. Searchers have been frustrated by hundreds of holdouts who have refused to leave their homes, fearing possessions will be pillaged, pets will die and their way of life will be erased.
«There are, to our surprise, thousands of people still in the city that we’re trying to identify and locate,» said Deputy New Orleans Police Chief Warren Riley. «We’re trying to convince them there’s nothing for them here — no food, no jobs, nothing to let them live the way they’re used to.»
But there were nascent signs of progress too. The gaping break in the city’s 17th Street Canal levee was finally stopped up by metal sheets, tons of earthen fill and a strand of massive 3,000-pound sandbags. Engineers and contractors working on the breach and two other levee ruptures said water levels dropped by as much as a foot Monday in some parts of the city. The next step is «de-watering,» the removal of water that is expected to take months.
More than 50,000 anxious evacuees began returning for the first visit to their submerged homes in Jefferson Parish, which borders the city on the west and the south. They waited for hours in cars lined for miles along a clogged highway.
«I was scared to come back,» said Mike «Opie» Johnson, 37, who retrieved a pillow-case full of his mother-in-law’s jewelry. «I heard there were looters everywhere, but turns out there weren’t too many looters in this parish.»
Thousands of residents arrived lugging coolers crammed with food and water to sustain them until Thursday, when parish sheriff’s deputies will force everyone to leave again. Authorities cautioned that many other residents might not see their homes for months. In New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin also tamped down expectations, warning that it would take 10 years to rebuild the city and that storm-related deaths could rise as high as 10,000.
A week since Katrina blasted through the Gulf Coast, bursting levees and flooding out hundreds of thousands of residents, New Orleans remains bereft of the spark of high life that has made it a tourist and jazz mecca. It has descended into a nightmarish tableau of gas-line fires, sporadic gunfire and the sound of helicopters on searches for residents still trapped.
Soldiers, looters and scavengers sloshed through murky water under picturesque 18th century flats with trademark iron-gated balconies. The century-old jazz haunts of Storyville and Basin Street, where Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet played for tips, were silent as graves. The old port blockaded by Union ironclads during the Civil War remains useless, its entry canals bottled up by loose barges, scrap metal, silt and flood debris.
Yet many survivors ignored pleas to evacuate, foraging for sustenance by day and staying hidden at night in a city deprived of basic functions.
«They’re trying to starve us out,» said Barnell Roman, 53, who drank a warm beer on the porch of his two-story home on Elysian Fields Avenue in the Mid-City neighborhood.
Roman said he and a dozen other neighborhood residents were no longer able to cadge food or water from National Guard troops posted nearby. Faced with shrinking supplies, two neighbors gave up and accepted a ride from authorities to an evacuation point, he said.
On Interstate 10, where a flooded highway exit served as a ramp to launch rescue boats, search crews said hundreds of people had declined to be rescued over the last two days. One Texas crew operating east of the interstate was turned way by 450 people living in houses surrounded by water. On Monday, the crew rescued 183 people but was turned away by 150 more, said Billy Parker, manager of the Texas Task Force One Water Strike Team.
«They have water up to the porch, but they don’t want to go,» Parker said. «They sit up on the second floor and say: ‘We got food. We got water. We’re staying.’ » Parker said his crews had no authority to forcibly remove anyone but had passed the information on to state and city agencies.
Nagin has said the city will remove all residents. He has not provided details on how or when the process would be carried out. But Riley warned Monday that officials were considering «stopping food drops» to the stragglers to increase the pressure on them to leave.
There were emerging signs that water-borne bacterial disease has begun to fester among survivors being brought out of the flood zone by military and police search teams. Medical authorities working in the city report treating several cases of vibrio vulnificus, a gastrointestinal disease that spreads through exposure to polluted water.
Health officials said they clearly identified strains of the disease, which has effects similar to cholera, among some storm refugees. But they do not yet have a handle on the number of cases.
«We are seeing some cases,» said Von Roebuck, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. «It could be life-threatening.»
Among healthy people, the illness can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain but is generally not life-threatening. It can be cured with antibiotics. But it can be more serious among people with chronic liver disease and compromised immune systems, leading to fever, chills and septic shock.
«The water quality in the streets continues to deteriorate,» said Nagin, who said he was concerned about West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne diseases. «There is some really nasty looking stuff out there.»
In a visit to the Louisiana Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge, Bush told several hundred local, state and federal public safety officials that their efforts in evacuating and providing medical treatment and food to tens of thousands of flood survivors brought «immediate light to people who needed help.»
Bush returned to the storm-torn Gulf Coast region for the second time in three days to boost the morale of authorities and urge churches and other religious organizations to aid the flood victims of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
«I want to thank every church member who’s helping people who have been displaced,» Bush said as he toured the Bethany New World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, consoling refugees along with televangelist T.D. Jakes and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.
Behind the scenes there were tensions between Blanco and the administration over the White House’s attempt last week to force her to cede the constitutional authority she wields over the Louisiana National Guard.
A senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed Monday that top White House officials had pressed her to allow federal officials to unify National Guard and active-duty troops under one chain of command. The official said that «we wanted to unify the command and control for security» under Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, who is heading National Guard troops in New Orleans.
But Blanco has resisted, fearing the White House is attempting to paint her as the weak link in last week’s slow-moving government disaster operations. On Monday, Blanco’s aides learned only at the last minute that Bush was touring the state capital in Baton Rouge and complained that she was being punished for holding tight to her constitutional authority over state-based National Guard units.
When the two sat together at the Emergency Operations Center, Bush smiled benignly while Blanco stared ahead solemnly. At one point, Bush leaned over to give her a peck on the cheek, but her stern gaze did not waver.
Later, Blanco minimized rumors of sniping and said she supported the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has drawn sharp criticism in recent days. «This debate was simply about an organizational structure,» she said. «We needed the versatility to use the National Guard members as they needed them.»
After attending a meeting with Bush, Blanco and other federal and state officials, James Lee Witt, the former Clinton administration FEMA director, said that «in two days, you’ll see a different program down here.»
But Witt, who was hired as an advisor last week by Blanco to shore up her emergency planning and to blunt federal efforts to seize authority over military relief operations, also said that the Bush administration had «minimized FEMA» by folding it into the Department of Homeland Security.
«You can’t report up through three different chains of people and make things go fast,» Witt said. «FEMA needs to be put back as an independent agency with the people and resources to do its job well.»
Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff and FEMA head Michael D. Brown have been under fire for moving aid in too slowly and for not coordinating with local officials. They continued to defend their performance.
During one news conference Monday, a perturbed Brown resorted to listing his previous experience dealing with public emergencies.
«Yeah, I’ve been through a few disasters in my life,» he said.
During a Monday meeting to unveil a fundraising foundation to aid hurricane victims, former Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush agreed that sniping between disaster officials should cease while relief operations were still underway. But Clinton said a national commission should investigate mistakes made in the first days after the hurricane, which hit Aug. 29. And he also questioned FEMA’s current structure.
«It has something to do with how they reorganized after I left,» Clinton said.
Shoring up his organization, Chertoff named a new federal official to help oversee rescue and recovery operations in New Orleans. Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard’s chief of staff, will be deputy federal officer under Brown. The Coast Guard has been widely praised for making more than 15,000 rescues of people trapped by the hurricane.
Allen’s job will be to set up a new headquarters in New Orleans and work with Honore, who commands Joint Task Force Katrina, the military group in New Orleans.
Troops at the heart of relief operations in New Orleans and Mississippi continued to grow Monday. Major Gen. Bennett Landreneau of the Louisiana National Guard said the total number of forces in the city would climb to 10,000.
Honore, the commanding general of the First Army, seemed to be everywhere during the day.
He directed troops, met with Bush and Blanco, and charmed and blustered at television news anchors who began to mimic his gruff phrasing — repeating his «boots on the ground» to refer to growing troop strength and ending questions with his terse, «Over!»
The general waved off the political firestorm over the Bush administration’s halting response, chalking the chaos following Katrina’s assault to the vagaries of nature.
«The storm did this. It wasn’t anything the government did,» Honore said. «The storm had the damn vote. You can’t vote that damn water out of the city of New Orleans. Now let’s take care of the evacuees! Let’s get it on!»
Gold and Zucchino reported from New Orleans and Braun from Washington. Times staff writers Ellen Barry in Baton Rouge, La.; Richard Fausset in Jefferson Parish, La.; and Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report, as well as Times researchers Lianne Hart in Baton Rouge and Lynn Marshall in Seattle. Associated Press also contributed.
By Scott Gold, David Zucchino and Stephen Braun Times Staff Writers