Desolate Gulf Coast Will Take Years to Recover
WASHINGTON, DC, September 1, 2005 (ENS) - President George W. Bush flew over the hurricane-struck and flooded city of New Orleans and the rest of the battered Gulf Coast Wednesday on his way back to Washington from his Texas ranch. "We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history," the President said after viewing the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina.
"The vast majority of New Orleans, Louisiana is under water. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses are beyond repair. A lot of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been completely destroyed. Mobile is flooded," said President Bush after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday afternoon at the White House. "This recovery will take a long time. This recovery will take years."
No exact death toll could be stated this morning, but officials estimate hundreds have died in New Orleans alone. Bodies of people and animals floated down streets Wednesday that last week rang with jazz music and laughter.
The U.S. Coast Guard has rescued nearly 2,000 people from the floodwaters, but hundreds are dying. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said the death toll could rise into the thousands before the disaster ends. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco ordered all remaining survivors to leave New Orleans by the end of the week.
But other storm refugees who drove to Houston were turned away from the Astrodome gates and told that only evacuees arriving by bus would be sheltered there. Frustrated and exhausted they have nowhere to go.
The federal government is focused on three priorities, the President said at a news conference Wednesday - to save lives; to sustain lives by ensuring adequate food, water, shelter and medical supplies for survivors; and to execute a comprehensive recovery effort.
"The folks on the Gulf Coast are going to need the help of this country for a long time," President Bush said. "This is going to be a difficult road. The challenges that we face on the ground are unprecedented. But there's no doubt in my mind we're going to succeed."
Energy is in short supply. Power is out to hundreds of thousands of people across the Gulf Coast, and oil production in the Gulf of Mexico is disrupted. More than 480 oil platforms and 79 rigs were evacuated, shutting in more than 90 percent of oil production and 83 percent of gas production in the Gulf, according to the federal Minerals Management Service.
To limit disruptions in supplies of crude oil for refineries, Bush said the Department of Energy is approving loans from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. "I instructed Secretary [Samuel] Bodman to work with refiners, people who need crude oil, to alleviate any shortage through loans," he said.
"The Environmental Protection Agency has granted a nationwide waiver for fuel blends to make more gasoline and diesel fuel available throughout the country. This will help take some pressure off of gas price," Bush said. "But our citizens must understand this storm has disrupted the capacity to make gasoline and distribute gasoline."
The Intracoastal Canal from Mobile to Panama City, Florida, is open to vessels, and tug and barge traffic has resumed in Mobile Bay, Alabama. All other ports and waterways from Mobile to New Orleans remain closed.
After an initial assessment, Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans, said the wharves are damaged but operable. But cargo operations are hampered by lack of workers for the vessels as a lot of the labor force either incurred heavy damage to their homes or evacuated out of town, La Grange said. Distribution of cargoes is blocked because roads are damaged or under water.
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt Wednesday declared a federal public health emergency for the states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida and moved to create up to 40 emergency medical shelters to provide care for evacuees and victims. The emergency declaration will allow the department to waive certain requirements as well as make grants and enter into contracts more rapidly during this emergency.
“We’re focused on the immediate health care needs of people in the region, augmenting state and local efforts. And we’re also preparing for public health challenges that may emerge such as disease and contamination," Leavitt said.
There is no power to the New Orleans wastewater system, and water may not be safe to drink, clean with, or bathe in. Water can become contaminated with bacteria, sewage, agricultural or industrial waste, chemicals, and other substances that can cause illness or death.
Leavitt said, "We encourage them to boil water and to drink safe water. Water-borne diseases can be a terrible aftermath of this kind of an incident, particularly for those who are feeding young children."
Working with its federal partners, HHS is helping provide and staff 250 beds in each shelter for a total of 10,000 beds for the region. Ten of these facilities will be staged within the next 72 hours and another 10 will be deployed within the next 100 hours after that, Leavitt said at a press conference at the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday. HHS is deploying up to 4,000 medically qualified personnel to staff these facilities.
A medical shelter with up to 250 beds has been set up at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge to help provide health care for those fleeing New Orleans. Federal agencies are sending medical supplies and using the National Disaster Medical System, HHS has identified 2,600 available hospital bed in a surrounding 12 state area and 40,000 available beds nationwide.
FEMA is moving supplies and equipment into the hardest hit areas as quickly as possible - truckloads of water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents and tarps. There are currently over 1,700 trailer trucks which have been mobilized to move these supplies into position.
The U.S. Air Force airlifting relief supplies to the stricken region. Colonel Jeff Franklin, the center controller working the hurricane relief mission, said, "Because airports and airfields in the Biloxi and New Orleans areas are without power because of extensive damage from the hurricane's high winds, rain and flooding, aircraft are primarily flying cargo and people into Lafayette, located northwest of the coastal areas," he said.
Major flooding continues to be a great problem in New Orleans and surrounding parishes. Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to use helicopters to drop 3,000 pound sandbags into two breaches in the hurricane levees surrounding the city. The breaks are allowing water to flow into the saucer-shaped city from Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River.
But access to the breach sites is hampering efforts to close them, the Corps said. "Barges and cranes cannot be moved through the Industrial Canal due to motor vessels and other large debris blocking the canal. Vessels must go around and through the Gulf InterCoastal Waterway or the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet," a Corps official explained.
The Mississippi River is closed to vessel traffic from Southwest Pass to Natchez, Mississippi. The Army National Guard, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, other federal and state authorities, and private contractors are all working alongside the Corps to bring in necessary materials, supplies and equipment to begin making inroads on the damage.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta told reporters, "To date, we have shipped 13.4 million liters of water, 10,000 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice and 144 generators, among other essential supplies. Secondly, we are working to restore at least minimal transportation infrastructure in the region. That includes highways, airports, seaports, and oil pipelines.
"We have deployed teams from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to the region," Mineta said. "They are working closely with Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama state officials to clear roads and inspect bridges, establish communications and increase operations at major airports, and to move generators to pipeline pumping stations to restore the flow of petroleum products to the Southeast.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is asking generous people who want to help to send cash, not goods. "Cash donations are especially helpful to victims," said FEMA head Michael Brown.
"They allow volunteer agencies to issue cash vouchers to victims so they can meet their needs. Cash donations also allow agencies to avoid the labor-intensive need to store, sort, pack and distribute donated goods," said Brown. "Donated money prevents, too, the prohibitive cost of air or sea transportation that donated goods require."
The Red Cross is operating more than 250 shelters across seven states, providing a safe haven for nearly 42,000 evacuees – many who have been left homeless by Katrina. The aid agency says the first priority is meeting the urgent, critical needs of those people, which include providing emergency shelter, food and water.
But the Red Cross cannot accept donations of new or used clothing, toys or household goods. "While that generous spirit is truly appreciated," said Amanda Lepof, an American Red Cross in-kind officer, "unsolicited, spontaneous donations of goods and services from individuals and community groups, although well intentioned, have hidden costs and pose a number of complications for initial relief efforts."
"In-kind donations are best when they come from companies that can provide new items in a quantity that meets the mass care needs of victims – for example, Anheuser-Busch is again donating canned water for hurricane victims and response workers," said Lepof.
The ball club also donated $1 million in April following the Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed more than 250,000 lives.
Gulfport, Mississippi, one of the areas hit hardest by Katrina, is the hometown of Yankees outfielder Matt Lawton. His parents and other family members have been riding out the storm in his home, though it suffered about $200,000 in damage. Lawton said that the roof and floors will need to be replaced, as will some walls in the house.
Wednesday, Lawton spoke to his mother, Lynette, who said that while everyone is OK, the home is without electricity and gas, leaving just snack food for his family to live on. The lack of open gas stations has limited his family's ability to leave the area, where temperatures are registering in the 90s.
"It's so hot down there now, and there's no ice, no water," Lawton said. "The generator ran out of gas, so that's another problem now because the house is shut down. They don't have enough gas to drive anywhere, either. It's been one thing after another."
Hurricane Katrina has crippled Entergy’s electrical system within the City of New Orleans and extensively damaged the electrical system throughout Louisiana and Mississippi, the company said. On Wednesday Entergy has restored power to 214,000 customers, while nearly 877,000 remain without electrical service.
Power has been restored to 124,000 Gulf Power customers in Florida who lost power when the hurricane first made landfall last Friday. "That’s 95 percent of those affected by Hurricane Katrina," said John Hutchinson, company spokesman. "Crews are working as quickly as possible to get power back to the almost 6,000 who still do not have power."
But in Mississippi, the situation is grim. Wednesday, at the end of the first day of assessing the destruction, it became clear that it will take weeks to rebuild the damage the storm inflicted on Mississippi Power’s 8,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines. Officials estimate approximately 70 percent will need to be rebuilt or repaired.
Thousands of utility workers from across the country are arriving on the Gulf Coast to help with the task of power restoration.