The death toll from Hurricane Katrina continues to climb dramatically with the mayor of New Orleans estimating that the number of dead in his city could well be in the thousands. He described dead bodies yet to be recovered floating through the water-soaked streets of New Orleans. The White House has declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf Coast, as the US Department of Health and Human Services secretary Mike Leavitt warned of potential outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. President Bush cut short his vacation in Crawford, Texas. Upon his return to Washington, he addressed the nation on television: "As we flew here today, I also asked the pilot to fly over the Gulf Coast region so I could see firsthand the scope and magnitude of the devastation. 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. We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history."
If the estimates that the death toll could go into the thousands prove true, that would make Katrina the deadliest natural disaster in the United States since at least the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As Bush spoke, the Pentagon said the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi have ordered the mobilization of an additional 10,000 National Guard troops to provide security and help with hurricane relief. The latest deployments will double the number of National Guard troops in the area. According to the commander of the National Guard, fully one-third of the 21,000 troops will be used to prevent looting, enforce curfews and bolster local law enforcement. According to the Pentagon, 7,200 active duty military troops were responding to the disaster. Meanwhile, some 3 million people in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida remain without electricity. President Bush ordered Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff to coordinate a massive recovery campaign that could take years to complete.
The total evacuation of New Orleans has begun. More than 25,000 people that had sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome are now being bused to the Houston Astrodome, as are some of the neediest patients at hospitals. Some 475 buses have begun loading up passengers. In addition to the Astrodome solution, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was considering putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks, and so-called floating dormitories.
The federal government dispatched helicopters, warships and elite SEAL water-rescue teams in one of the biggest relief operations in U.S. history. Officials say it is aimed at rescuing residents from rooftops in the last of what are called the "golden 72 hours" that rescuers say is crucial to saving lives. The Washington Post described a scene on shattered Interstate 10, where hundreds of people wandered up and down the only major freeway leading into New Orleans from the east. People pushed shopping carts, laundry racks and anything they could find to carry their belongings. On some of the few roads that were still open, people waved at passing cars with empty water jugs, begging for relief. Hundreds of people appeared to have spent the night on the highway.
Thousands of people have lost everything they owned in life, including their homes and businesses. Entire communities have been wiped out and residents of New Orleans are now being told they might not be able to return to what’s left of their city for months. Officials of the Army Corps of Engineers told the LA Times that draining the billions of gallons of water from New Orleans could take three to six months, substantially longer than many have predicted. Col. Richard Wagenaar, the corps’ senior official in the city, said, "The news cameras do not do it justice. And I’m worried the worst is yet to come." Michael Brown, who heads FEMA and is leading the on-the-ground response from the federal government, said "I surmise there are people in New Orleans who won’t be able to get back to their homes for months, if ever."
The Washington Post points out that New Orleans is now flooded by water spiked with tons of toxic chemicals and contaminants ranging from heavy metals and hydrocarbons to industrial waste, human feces and the decayed remains of humans and animals. Experts say the contamination will continue to poison the Gulf of Mexico region for more than a decade. A senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency told the Post "This is the worst case...There is not enough money in the gross national product of the United States to dispose of the amount of hazardous material in the area."
Meanwhile, in neighboring Mississippi, authorities now say that at least 185 people have died. In Hancock County alone, Sheriff Eddie Jennings put the death toll at 85, with 60 people dead in Pearlington, 22 in Waveland, two in Bay St. Louis and one body that had washed up on the beach. In neighboring Harrison County, which is home to Gulfport and Biloxi, officials say that 100 bodies have been found. All of these numbers are expected to grow as search and rescue operations continue. The city of Gulfport was almost destroyed, and Biloxi was heavily damaged. Dozens of patients from a Biloxi hospital were evacuated by the U.S. Air Force on Wednesday. Patients including a ward full of women with high-risk pregnancies were transported from the hard-hit area by Air Force cargo planes to San Antonio, Texas. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour flew over his state’s ravaged coastline and likened it to Hiroshima in 1945. In Alabama more than 400,000 homes and businesses are without power, while Florida reported 11 deaths.
As with most natural disasters, the poor are paying the heaviest price. With the financial world buzzing with talk of insurance payouts set to exceed $25 billion, many in the most devastated areas have no insurance and cannot afford to leave their homes behind. Many do not own cars and had no way to escape the hurricane.
Meanwhile, despite the dire situation in New Orleans, the mayor, Ray Nagin has ordered almost every one of the city’s 1,500 police officers to leave their search-and-rescue mission Wednesday night and return to the streets to stop people from taking goods from stores and businesses. In some cases, violence has broken out as people looted stores. Several businesses report having their entire stock of guns and other weapons taken and police officials report armed gangs roaming the streets. Desperate people on Wednesday chased down a state police truck full of food, while city officials themselves were commandeering equipment from a looted Office Depot. In defending his decision to call the police off of rescue missions, the mayor said "It’s really difficult because my opinion of the looting is it started with people running out of food, and you can’t really argue with that too much." But last night, he issued a statement to the AP saying: "They are starting to get closer to the heavily populated areas–hotels, hospitals, and we’re going to stop it right now."
Meanwhile, international leaders are joining the chorus of voices in this country saying that the government failed to prepare for a disaster it knew was imminent. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez blasted President Bush for waiting until after Hurricane Katrina hit the United States to end his vacation in Texas. At the same time, Chavez expressed sympathy for the storm’s victims and repeated his offer to send aid workers to the devastated southern US states. Meanwhile, Citgo, the US subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant, announced it would donate one million dollars to US aid organizations helping hurricane victims.
This comes as gasoline prices in many U.S. cities spiked past the all-time highs set in 1981 with some drivers in Atlanta facing prices above $5 a gallon. Prices also rose significantly in many populated urban centers across the nation. Prices jumped just as Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Wednesday on CNBC that the government was releasing crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, where more than 700 million barrels of crude oil are stored in caverns for emergency use. The Department of Interior estimates that 95 percent of Gulf of Mexico production has been shutdown by Katrina. Some analysts are now predicting that gas prices nationwide could soar to more than $4 a gallon.
The publication Airport Business is reporting that at least ten U.S. airports could be shut down due to a lack of jet fuel caused by refinery and pipeline shutdowns from the hurricane. Airlines and oil companies are reportedly working on plans to supply jet fuel to the airports in jeopardy. They include Atlanta and Washington Dulles.
NBC will hold a live telethon on Friday to raise money for the relief efforts, while the following Friday, Black Entertainment Television, BET, will host one. That effort will involve Hip-Hop activist and businessman Russell Simmons, the National Urban League and jazz musician Winton Marsalis.
In non-hurricane news, Iraq has declared a 3-day period of mourning after the massive stampede in Baghdad yesterday that killed some 1,000 Iraqis. Grieving relatives combed hospitals and morgues on Thursday for missing loved ones, as funeral tents were erected in the impoverished Baghdad Shi’ite suburb of Sadr City as relatives prepared to mourn their dead. At least 965 people are confirmed to have died during Wednesday’s stampede as thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims took part in a religious festival. It remains unclear what exactly caused the stampede but there was a barrage of mortar and rocket attacks on the crowd earlier in the day. Those attacks killed seven people. There are reports that a warning from within the crowd of a suicide bomber among them sparked the panic. According to police officials, most of the victims were women and children who died from drowning or being trampled. Hundreds of people reportedly jumped or were thrown into the Tigris River. It is being described as the biggest loss of life in such a crowd since more than 1,400 pilgrims died at Mecca during the hajj in 1990.