September 1, 2005


New Orleans Death Toll May Soar; Survivors Desperate; Looters Brazen: Mayor says thousands of bodies could be found in the city, where 90% of homes are submerged. Troops and ships are ordered into the region. (Scott Gold, Lianne Hart and Stephen Braun, September 1, 2005, LA Times)

The city's police and emergency officials worked desperately Wednesday to prevent complete social disintegration as widespread looting continued for a second day and cresting floodwaters hid untold numbers of dead.

Though the flooding appeared to stabilize, 90% of New Orleans' homes were underwater, officials said. Repair crews readied 20,000-pound sandbags to plug gaping breaches in the city's levees, but officials bickered over the slow progress.

Bus caravans started to move 23,000 exhausted Superdome refugees to shelter in Texas. A few hundred people left Wednesday, and the full-scale evacuation was to begin at midnight. On a stretch of interstate near the stadium, a mob of flood victims began an anarchic march of their own, abandoning the ruined city. [...]

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin predicted that "at minimum, hundreds" and "most likely thousands" of city residents lay in underwater graves. "We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," he said.

Despite the urgency of the situation for victims in need of rescue, Nagin ordered the city's police force Wednesday night to discontinue such missions and return to the streets to counter waves of looting that had turned violent.

"They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas — hotels, hospitals — and we're going to stop it right now," Nagin said. The mayor said 1,500 police officers, nearly the entire department, were being redeployed on the city's remaining stretches of dry land.

Water May Linger for Months: City pumps themselves are submerged, so officials must await nature's help. Delays already have local officials on edge. (Ralph Vartabedian, September 1, 2005, LA Times)
Draining the billions of gallons of water that have inundated New Orleans could take three to six months, substantially longer than some experts have expected, the Army Corps of Engineers said late Wednesday.

Col. Richard Wagenaar, the corps' senior official in New Orleans, said that the estimate was based on planning done as Hurricane Katrina approached and that it remained the corps' best estimate. He is directing the agency's recovery efforts.

The estimate depends on favorable weather. Additional rain or other problems could cause more delays, Wagenaar warned.

"There is a lot of water here," he said. "The news cameras do not do it justice. And I'm worried the worst is yet to come." [...]

The water is 30 feet deep or more in some parts of the city, covering homes. In the city's 9th Ward, homes have shifted and floated away, leaving nothing that resembled the city grid before the storm, Wagenaar said after a helicopter tour.

New Orleans' lakes and rivers are bordered by a system of earthen levees, concrete seawalls and steel doors that are supposed to protect homes and businesses during heavy rains or hurricanes.

The city's 22 pumping stations are not operating, and most are underwater. Not until the city naturally drains a little can the corps begin restoring pumping capacity, Wagenaar said.

He said the corps planned to punch holes in levees around the city to hasten the drainage now occurring through the main breach that swamped the city after the hurricane. Levees on the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and an inner coastal waterway are to be broken open in coming days, though "we haven't decided yet how."

The pumps, which the corps will repair when it can, are a key part of the sophisticated drainage system that is supposed to keep the city dry. But they run on electricity, which is out in the city, and the pump stations' emergency power supplies may also need repair.

The first task, though, is fixing the main breach, on the 17th Street Canal, which leads from the city center to Lake Pontchartrain. The corps started to drop massive sandbags from military helicopters Wednesday.

The corps is also trying to build a road above the water to the breach, which is estimated to be 200 to 300 feet wide, and it is shutting off the 17th Street Canal to prevent any further water from flowing into the city, Wagenaar added. A contractor will use sheet piling to shut off the canal.

Corps officials think water rose over the top of the canal wall and cascaded down to its base, scouring a hole that undermined the foundation, said Al Naomi, the corps' senior project engineer in New Orleans.

"It exceeded the design surge," he said.

Rebuilding to require historic effort (Charlie Savage and Bryan Bender, September 1, 2005, Boston Globe)
President Bush yesterday vowed to rebuild New Orleans, a herculean task beyond anything that civil engineers have faced in US history.

''New communities will flourish and the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it," the president said in a nationally televised address, adding that he has ordered his cabinet to come up with a comprehensive rebuilding plan for New Orleans and smaller Gulf Coast cities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

But even as Bush was speaking, city planners and engineers predicted that any attempt to restore the city of 469,000 -- now mostly under water -- will take years of work and tens of billions of dollars to complete, and will likely unleash political battles over which areas should get priority.

Some engineers said that replicating the exact cityscape of New Orleans, which is six feet below sea level, makes little sense.

-Superdome: Haven Quickly Becomes an Ordeal (JOSEPH B. TREASTER, 9/01/05, NY Times)

The sick and the disabled were the first to be led out. But late Wednesday afternoon, as the slow evacuation of the Superdome began, it was not always easy to distinguish them from the rest of the 20,000 or more storm refugees who had steeped for days in the arena's sickening heat and stench, unbathed, exhausted and hungry.

They had been crammed into the Superdome's shadowy ramps and corridors, spread across its vast artificial turf field and plopped into small family encampments in the plush orange, teal and purple seats that rise toward the top of the dome.

They had flocked to the arena seeking sanctuary from the winds and waters of Hurricane Katrina. But understaffed, undersupplied and without air-conditioning or even much lighting, the domed stadium quickly became a sweltering and surreal vault, a place of overflowing toilets and no showers. Food and water, blankets and sheets, were in short supply. And the dome's reluctant residents exchanged horror stories, including reports, which could not be confirmed by the authorities, of a suicide and of rapes.

By Wednesday the stink was staggering. Heaps of rotting garbage in bulging white plastic bags baked under a blazing Louisiana sun on the main entry plaza, choking new arrivals as they made their way into the stadium after being plucked off rooftops and balconies.

The odor billowing from toilets was even fouler. Trash spilled across corridors and aisles, slippery with smelly mud and scraps of food.

Extraordinary Problems, Difficult Solutions: Massive Floods, Pollution Make for 'Worst Case' (Guy Gugliotta and Peter Whoriskey, September 1, 2005, Washington Post)
First they have to pump the flooded city dry, and that will take a minimum of 30 days. Then they will have to flush the drinking water system, making sure they don't recycle the contaminants. Figure another month for that.

The electricians will have to watch out for snakes in the water, wild animals and feral dogs. It will be a good idea to wear hip boots and take care of cuts and scrapes before the toxic slush turns them into festering sores. The power grid might be up in a few weeks, but many months will elapse before everybody's lights come back on.

By that time, a lot of people won't care because they will have taken the insurance money and moved away -- forever. Home rebuilding, as opposed to repairs, won't start for a year and will last for years after that.

Even then, there may be nothing normal about New Orleans, because the floodwater, spiked with tons of contaminants ranging from heavy metals and hydrocarbons to industrial waste, human feces and the decayed remains of humans and animals, will linger nearby in the Gulf of Mexico for a decade.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Read a report that rescue helicopters at the Superdome are being fired upon by the putative rescuees. Have decades of social-engineering-gone-mad robbed these unfortunates of all traces of humanity?

Posted by: erp at September 1, 2005 9:13 AM

Bush is getting killed in the media and on the blogs (NRO for one). He appears to be doing what he can (ordering relief efforts, etc) but it appears this is such a huge catastrophe that he will be significantly hurt politically over this. And if he does anything else beside the Katrina cleanup effort (i.e. try to lower taxes, Iraq, etc) the media will accuse him of not paying enough attention.

Posted by: AWW at September 1, 2005 9:26 AM

AWW: Yawn. The Bush haters will still hate him no matter what. Republicans will support him solidly. And any competent response from the federal gov't will make the rest of the population, who waver back & forth week to week, support him, boosting his poll numbers.

In fact, politically this makes the efforts of the left to stop John Roberts untenable. Saw an ad from some group or other on CNN yesterday, and it's hard to believe that 90% of the population's response isn't going to be that there are slightly higher priorities than freaking out over what some clean-cut lawyer wrote 25 years ago.

Posted by: b at September 1, 2005 9:37 AM

It's August, what else are they going to talk about?

Posted by: oj at September 1, 2005 9:38 AM

The people at NRO are acting like teen age girls over this. They should realize this isn't Star Trek, you can't transport relief. It takes time to organize stuff like this. For instance, send troops. Great idea. But you have to have a plan. What are they going to do specifically? Who is in charge? They need to be supplied.

Disasters are primarily a state and local responsibility in the first instance. The performance of the Louisiana officials has not appeared to be impressive. The Governor seems totally clueless. She is the one who is likely finished.

US Presidents get way too much credit when things go well and too much when things go bad. So, there will likely be negative fallout. It goes with the job. There is really little the President can do to minimize the fallout in the short run.

Posted by: Bob at September 1, 2005 9:45 AM

No one's ever truly prepared for events of this magnitude.

New York City, with a competent mayor and governor responded well to 9-11. New Orleans, a notoriously corrupt city, in a notoriously corrupt state has gotten off to a slow start.

The President should ask Jeb, who has extensive experience with hurricane's, to take over.

Posted by: oj at September 1, 2005 9:52 AM

Louisiana would have Bobby Jindal as governor if they had any sense...

Posted by: b at September 1, 2005 10:09 AM

Bob (and oj): What kind of fool did know that this was likely to happen sooner or later?

If you didn't know that NO was below sea level, all you had to do was catch the recent PBS bit on the threat. I'm not going to bother providing documentation of what we knew about this--the proof is all over the place.

Look, a decision was made to live with risk. We went to Atlantic City and put the deed on the red: too bad, so sad.

We are going to do everything we can to succor the victims; we must not spend one penny to rebuild that place.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 1, 2005 10:28 AM

I agree with the above sentiments. Just pointing out that it will be rough for Bush for awhile.

Posted by: AWW at September 1, 2005 10:39 AM

When hasn't it been? It's a tough job.

Posted by: oj at September 1, 2005 10:43 AM

"Some engineers said that replicating the exact cityscape of New Orleans, which is six feet below sea level, makes little sense."

IAAE (I am an engineer) and it makes little sense to me either - but this thought would occur to any moderately intelligent and hardheaded person. I am sure there will be a great hue and cry to rebuild it in the same spot nonetheless.

I have read the the levees were built to withstand a 1-in-100 year storm; alternatively, the dikes & levees in Holland were built to withstand the 1 in 10,000 year storm. Naturally, the cost is significantly greater for the higher quality, but consider the cost of rebuilding the city after the 1/100 year levees fail, and the high quality levees appear to be a bargain.

By the way, for a 1-in-100 per year storm, the odds are about 18% that such a storm will occur after 20 years, which should appear uncomfortably high to any of the city fathers planning for the future.

Posted by: at September 1, 2005 11:04 AM

Er, the last anonymous comment was from me.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at September 1, 2005 11:06 AM

Unfortunately, there are many other places where people live that really don't make sense.

In Phoenix and other desert cities, we are rapidly using up our water supplies - but people still insist on watering their green lawns and react quite hostilely to any suggestion they don't. There are various Seattle suburbs that are going to be in the path of lava flow whenever Mt Rainier blows. St Louis will eventually be hit by a massive earthquake, but I do not know of any plans to radically improve new building codes in anticipation for it.

All these places are headed to some sort of crisis. Yet people will do none of the little things now that could make a huge difference later on because those acts will inhibit growth.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at September 1, 2005 12:02 PM

We just had our one in a hundred year storm and even high on a hill the damage was awesome.

Posted by: oj at September 1, 2005 12:05 PM

Lou: Of course this was going to happen. There even may be dusty plans at FEMA or the Pentagon. It still takes time to ramp up.

Of course there will be rebuilding. Our major river needs a port/city at its end. So it costs $30-50 billion. I think the richest nation on earth can handle it.

Posted by: Bob at September 1, 2005 12:05 PM

Mr. Durnell:
Don't forget that New England sits atop a major fault line as well.

Posted by: Governor Breck at September 1, 2005 12:22 PM

I would guess that a 1-100 year storm for the Gulf of Mexico looks a lot like a 1-10,000 year storm in Amsterdam...

Posted by: Timothy at September 1, 2005 1:31 PM

Here's a million dollar idea that I'm going to give away for free. Rebuild New Orleans as if it's Venice, Italy. Put everything on stilts and let the water in. Then during Mardi Gras (?spelling), women could row around and men in the houses on stilts could yell "Hey show us your t*ts", and when they did they would get beads and other stuff.

Posted by: AllenS at September 1, 2005 1:40 PM

Read about Venice lately?

Posted by: oj at September 1, 2005 4:04 PM

Venice has it's problems. No doubt. However, how long did they do the canal thing? They made big Lira off of it. Let me thro some Spanish at you, mucho longo. I didn't say it would last forever, but how long did this assine thing go on with the city below the water level? Let's be pro active. Let's figure out how to rebuild and make those people some money.

Posted by: AllenS at September 1, 2005 5:23 PM

Has the governor called out the National Guard yet?

Posted by: Gideon at September 1, 2005 5:31 PM

Here's a must read (and I mean must) from four years ago.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at September 1, 2005 5:40 PM

Republicans better start framing the debate and that debate is that Democrats have stopped every initiative to develop our own sources of energy and Democrats have been in charge in New Orleans and Louisiana since the year dot.

Why weren't the levees shored up during the Clinton years.

Posted by: erp [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 1, 2005 5:46 PM

El bravo to you, Barry. It's been a long time in the making. They should have started long ago to put those houses on stilts. Big thick cement stilts.

Posted by: AllenS at September 1, 2005 6:01 PM

It is the city/county/state that screwed up. Lack of planning, slow response.

Watch the MSM pin the blame squarely on Bush.

Posted by: Gideon at September 1, 2005 6:16 PM