Help Begins to Reach Hurricane Struck Gulf Coast

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2005 (ENS) - Evacuees from the New Orleans Convention Center are finally being rescued and processed at the makeshift Emergency Management Center at the New Orleans airport, where they are being put on planes or buses to shelters all around the country.

New Orleans residents stranded at the Convention Center called for help over and over, but it took a week to get food and water to them. The weak, elderly people, and babies were the victims as the convention center became a violent, lawless scene, survivors said.

"Babies got killed, ladies were raped, old people died, babies died from the heat, we had nothing to eat, it was a rat hole, it was a grave," one person told the media organization "Democracy Now."

”We need a little air and a little food and water for god's sakes. That's it," said somebody else.

”There is nobody in charge. The National Guard, the police, there is nobody. Somebody needs to come take charge and put organization and get these people to safety, to get them clothes, the basics things that they need to live from day-to-day,” said another.

Officials still have no firm estimate of the number of lives lost to the storm. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told NBC's Today Show that a figure of 10,000 deaths "wouldn't be unreasonable."

The plight of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people at the Convention Center was a subject of the President's morning briefing Monday with Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security officials.

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President George W. Bush and U.S. Army Lt. General Russ Honore walk to the Emergency Operations Center after the President's arrival in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. September 5, 2005. (Photo by Eric Draper courtesy The White House)
Lt. General Russel Honore, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, and the commanding general of the First U.S. Army, is a Louisiana native. He briefed the President about the plans for getting more National Guard troops into the area of the Convention Center.

"The Convention Center is something that is a high priority right now from the standpoint of the federal government. We're working to get supplies there - food and water and ice and medical supplies. And we're working to get more National Guard troops in there," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Before leaving Washington for a second tour of the hurricane stricken area, President Bush visited the American Red Cross national headquarters to address the staff and volunteers supporting Hurricane Katrina disaster relief operations. The Red Cross is engaged in the largest response to a natural disaster in the organization’s 125 year history.

"People, this is a storm of enormous magnitude. And so we need more manpower," he said. "And if you want to help, please call the Red Cross, your local Red Cross, and they'll find a way for you to help."

As of Sunday, 229,328 displaced people were in 679 shelters in 12 states, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

President Bush toured the stricken area for the second time on Monday. At Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Mississippi, he said, "I just want you to know that when I'm thinking about how we can help this part of the world, Mississippi is on my mind."

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A U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue crew from St. Louis, Missouri drags their skiff to a launching point on South Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans to look for people in distress. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Larry Chambers courtesy USCG)
Visiting a volunteer evacuee shelter at the Bethany World Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the President promised to improve the level of response to the needs of the evacuees. "All levels of government are doing the best they can. If it's not going right, we'll make it right," he said.

On Sunday, the President declared a state of emergency in eight states that are overwhelmed with refugees fleeing the devastated Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans, which is still mostly under water eight days after Katrina struck.

Oklahoma, West Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Utah and Colorado were declared emergency zones, making federal funding available to these states. Arkansas, Texas and the three states hardest hit - Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama - have already been declared emergency zones.

More states are preparing to receive Hurricane Katrina evacuees. FEMA counts 15 states and the District of Columbia that are currently housing or preparing to house evacuees.

It was three breaches made by Hurricane Katrina in the 350 miles of hurricane levees surrounding the city of New Orleans that let the waters of Lake Ponchartrain into the saucer-shaped city, flooding 80 percent of the urban area, and forcing the evacuation of the city.

The Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported progress has been made in sealing the barriers. From the Division's headquarters in Vicksburg Mississippi, the Corps said that over the last several days, water has continued to flow slowly out of the city, aiding their efforts to fight the flood.

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Survivors of Hurricane Katrina arrive at New Orleans Airport where FEMA's disaster teams have been set up. People are being flown to shelters in other states. September 3, 2005. (Photo by Michael Rieger courtesy FEMA)
“The primary focus today is to assess the pumps within the city and to work to get some of those started,” said Greg Breerwood, deputy district engineer for Project Management, in Vicksburg.

“We’ll want to start those pumps slowly to watch the impacts on the system, trying to ensure no damage as the system begins to sustain the increase in flow,” he cautioned.

The breaches are being closed with 1.5 ton and 10 ton sandbags dropped from helicopters.

On the ground, getting access to several of the breach sites has required the Corps and its contractors to overcome major hurdles, but now the Corps reports that their contractors are in position to close the breach at 17th Street.

The breach at the London Street Canal has been completely closed, but the Corps had to make breaches in the levees elsewhere to let the floodwaters flow out of the city. “We made breaches in the St. Bernard and Plaquermines Parrishes to assist in lowering water levels in those neighborhoods,” Breerwood said.

One contractor mobilized marsh buggies to travel along the Verette Return Levee Canal in St. Bernard Paris, flooded and flattened by the storm. The contractor is preparing to breach 200 feet of levee in two locations to release trapped water.

At least 100 barges sank in the storm, and some of them are blocking access so the engineers cannot get in to clear the Industrial Canal. But barges are not the only problem there. Lawless gangs are afoot, and engineering crews, fearing for their own safety, avoided the area.

"There still remains the challenge of raising the bridges over the Industrial Canal to commence waterborne operations, but we have several barges inhibiting that work," Breerwood said. "Security and safety of the contractor workforce is a major concern as well as civil unrest prohibited the crews from remaining in the area."

The Corps is moving additional pumps into the area to start the un-watering mission of the city. "Safety and caution will be the focus today to ensure we limit the risk of further damage," said Breerwood. "It’s a mission we are looking forward to getting underway."

In coordination with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is providing mass care to disaster victims at shelters and medical units across the Gulf Region and distributing medications and supplies, tetanus vaccines, and maintenance medications for diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and anxiety.

Michael Brown, the Department of Homeland Security's principal federal official for Hurricane Katrina response and head of FEMA, said, "Medical care and medications are crucial for the victims of this disaster and we are working to get these resources to all those in need."

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Lt. General Honore (left) briefs federal and state officials (from left) President George W. Bush, head of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. September 5, 2005. (Photo by Eric Draper courtesy The White House)
In Louisiana, FEMA has deployed 30 disaster medical teams, two veterinary assistance teams, and one mental health team to assist the living. In addition, four disaster mortuary operational response teams have been tasked with dealing with the hundreds, and possibly thousands of corpses still at large.

In Mississippi, there are 11 disaster medical teams, two veterinary teams, and a mental health team as well as four mortuary teams.

All hospitals as well as 30 nursing homes in New Orleans have been evacuated, according to FEMA, which said some 9,400 people were evacuated in this effort.

A Department of Defense mobile hospital is operational at the New Orleans airport, a portable hospital from Nevada arrived at the airport on Sunday, and the 1,000 bed hospital vessel, the USS Comfort, is scheduled to arrive in the Gulf Coast area today.

Millions of meals, water and 1.1 million barrels of diesel have been shipped to the disaster areas over the long weekend.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) says that although the outbreak of infectious diseases may be a frightening prospect, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, widespread outbreaks of infectious disease after hurricanes are not common in the United States. "Outbreaks of rare and deadly diseases do not suddenly occur after hurricanes and floods in areas where such diseases do not naturally occur."

Because cholera and typhoid are not commonly found in the U.S. Gulf States area, it is very unlikely that they would occur after Hurricane Katrina, the agency said.

DHH has in place a tracking system for unusual diseases or outbreaks in general populations or hospitals. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this tracking system has been expanded to include general shelters, special needs shelters, field hospitals and emergency rooms.

DHH officials say there is no need for any special immunizations in the wake of a hurricane or other severe storm, but residents who cut or puncture themselves while cleaning up after the storm should get a tetanus shot if they have not received one in the past five years.

Gastrointestinal illnesses and respiratory infections sometimes occurs following a hurricane or flood. The DHH advises that "it is important to wash your hands in hot, soapy water and take extra care when around people who have been recently affected with severe diarrhea or vomiting, as this could be a sign of a contagious stomach illness."

How to Get Help

Storm victims in declared counties can register online for disaster assistance at www.fema.gov or call FEMA's toll-free registration line 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) - TTY 800-462-7585.

People are encouraged to register on-line due to the possibility of high call volume. If registering by phone, owners of commercial properties and residents with only minor losses are urged to wait a few days before calling so those whose homes were destroyed or heavily damaged can be served first. Phone lines are open 24-hours, 7 days a week.

Three Disaster Recovery Centers, where hurricane victims can get assistance opened in Alabama Sunday making a total of five there; four are open in Texas. Disaster food stamps now are available in Louisiana, FEMA advises.

The American Red Cross has created and launched the Family Links Registry, which will aid individuals who are seeking loved ones and family members in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Concerned friends and family can register the names of their loved ones and view the list of those already posted.

The Family Links Registry can be accessed by visiting www.redcross.org or by calling: 1-877-LOVED-1S (1-877-568-3317) to register.

Due to the extent of the damage and the number of people displaced, concerned friends and family members are encouraged to visit the site daily to consult the list, as it will be updated continuously.

The U.S. Coast Guard has posted a comprehensive set of emergency response phone numbers at: http://www.uscg.mil/USCG.shtm Honore pic honorebriefing President George W. Bush receives a briefing from U.S. Army Lt. General Russ Honore, left, inside the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge, La., Monday Sept. 5, 2005, as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, second from right, and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, right, join the meeting. White House photo by Eric Draper Full Story