Hurricane Environmental Damage "Almost Unimaginable"

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana, September 7, 2005 (ENS) - Hurricane Katrina has left Louisiana with environmental wreckage that is "almost unimaginable," the head of the state Department of Environmental Quality said on Tuesday.

In a news briefing at the Homeland Security Office in Baton Rouge, DEQ Secretary Mike McDaniel said assessment crews are finding hazardous materials in ruined factories, hundreds of damaged sewage plants, and polluted water.

McDaniel

Mike McDaniel is secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)
State officials Tuesday confirmed 83 deaths from Orleans and Jefferson parishes but say they know that number will increase as more bodies are recovered from areas now inundated with flood waters contaminated with gasoline, chemicals, and excrement.

Initial surveys show that 140,000 to 160,000 Louisiana homes were flooded and cannot be recovered, McDaniel said, calling them "unsalvageable,"

He said it would take "years" to restore water service to the city of New Orleans.

An estimated 78,000 barrels of oil is flowing down the Mississippi River from the Venice oil storage depot of Bass Enterprises Production Company of Fort Worth, Texas.

At Chalmette, Louisiana, a Murphy oil tank was knocked off center by the storm and is leaking. DEQ spokesperson Jean Kelly says the oil has spread into the surrounding neighborhoods. But no estimate of the amount of oil spilled is possible as the entire area is under water. "The problem is access," she said, and for that reason the DEQ has not been able to assess this and the numerous other oil and chemical spills as yet.

In New Orleans, fires are burning across the city on the oily surface of the flood waters that still reach to the rooftops in some neighborhoods.

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Surrounded by the toxic floodwaters of New Orleans, a U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer today prepares an elderly man and woman for air transport to safety. (Photo courtesy USCG)
Using sandbags and rocks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has succeeded in closing off the breach in the 17th Street canal, through which water flooded into the city. The floodwater is being pumped off, but it could take nearly three months before the water is gone, a U.S. Army general said Friday.

"It will be 36 to 80 days to be done with the de-watering," said Brigadier General Robert Crear of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Although the toxic floodwaters are slowly receding, only five of New Orleans' 148 drainage pumps were operating, the engineers said.

Sources of nuclear radiation, including the Waterford III nuclear power plant, have been secured, McDaniel said, and the state is working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to restart the power plant 20 miles west of New Orleans.

The Entergy operated Waterford III still has no offsite power or communications facilities, and the Civil Defense communication system is still inoperable, the NRC says.

Entergy’s workforce has restored electrical service to more than 639,000 of the 1.1 million customers affected by Hurricane Katrina and some of the lights are on again in New Orleans. Limited service has been returned to the Central Business District and downtown New Orleans after crews restored the Market Street substation.

To the estimated 10,000 residents still believed to remain in the city, Mayor Ray Nagin warned today that they must get out now or risk being taken out by force.

survivors

A U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer tells survivors what to expect before they are lifted from their rooftop perch by a Coast Guard helicopter. (Photo courtesy USCG)
Nagin authorized law enforcement officers and the U.S. military to force the evacuation of all residents who refuse to obey orders to leave.

Police Captain Marlon Defillo said that forced removal of citizens had not yet begun. "That's an absolute last resort," he said.

Many residents have been resisting orders to abandon their property. They may have stocks of food and water and a generator to supply electricity.

State health officials are still advising residents to boil all water used to drink, cook, make ice or brush teeth in the parishes of: Ascension, Jefferson, Livingston, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Helena, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, and Washington. The boil order was lifted today for all other parishes since testing showed their water does not contain unsafe levels of bacteria and is safe to drink and use.

Just as it does for any other nation in distress after a natural disaster, the United Nations has mobilized inter-agency teams to help the United States recover from Hurricane Katrina. Further deployments may occur within the next few days, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said Tuesday.

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New Orleans resident is evacuated by helicopter on Saturday. Her face mirrors the distress and anxiety experienced by all the hurricane's victims. (Photo courtesy USCG)
The teams will offer humanitarian services, from food and health to storm evacuees and children. They were assembled after U.S. acceptance of help from the world body last week.

One inter-agency liaison team is based at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Hurricane Katrina Operations Centre in Arlington, Virginia.

The other teams will be deployed at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s regional coordination centers in Texas and Georgia.

These two teams include representatives from the World Food Programme (WFP), the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Health Organization, and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as well as support teams from the OCHA/UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination network.

UNICEF spokesman Damien Personnaz told reporters at a news briefing in Geneva his agency would specifically look at trauma effects on children as well as the situation of schools.

WFP spokesman Simon Pluess told reporters his agency would provide logistical help, while UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said his organization would put its experience in working with mass displacement on an emergency basis to good use.

In Washington, President George W. Bush and Congress pledged Tuesday to open separate investigations into the federal response to Katrina and New Orleans' broken levees.

"Governments at all levels failed," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, blamed FEMA for turning away assistance. "I understand that the U.S. Forest Service had water-tanker aircraft available to help douse the fires raging on our riverfront, but FEMA has yet to accept the aid," she said.

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Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff speaks with an Urban Search and Rescue Task Force member. (Photo courtesy FEMA)
"When Amtrak offered trains to evacuate significant numbers of victims - far more efficiently than buses - FEMA again dragged its feet. Offers of medicine, communications equipment and other desperately needed items continue to flow in, only to be ignored by the agency," said Landrieu.

Landrieu is calling for the President to appoint a cabinet level official to be responsible for the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, again called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be made autonomous from the Department of Homeland Security and for an independent commission to investigate the federal response to the disaster, saying neither Congress nor the administration should do it.

"The people that I met in Houston - they want answers and they want to know what went wrong and they want to know what they are going to be able to count on in the future," she said in a television interview Wednesday, two days after visiting refugees at the Astrodome. "I don't think the government can investigate itself."

The Department of Homeland Security says that to date 32,000 people were rescued from the disaster. There are 559 shelters operating around the country housing 182,000 people.

The National Guard has deployed 43,000 personnel, and there are 15,000 active duty military personnel responding to the hurricane disaster. There are 7,000 FEMA responders in the field and the U.S. Coast Guard has 4,000 personnel at work on disaster recovery.