New Orleans and the Gulf region remain in a state of catastrophe following the devastating Hurricane Katrina. At least 80 percent of New Orleans is underwater. The city has no electricity and little drinkable water. Officials say New Orleans will be uninhabitable for weeks. On Tuesday two levees broke, flooding areas of the city that had appeared to survive the storm.
The total number killed in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama remains unknown but officials fear it will be several hundred. Officials in Harrison County in Mississippi say at least 100 people died there mostly in the cities of Biloxi and Gulfport. At least 30 people died at a single housing complex in Biloxi known as the Quiet Water Beach apartments. Thousands of homes in the region were destroyed including the oceanfront home of Mississippi Senator Trent Lott.
The governor of Louisiana Kathleen Blanco has ordered the entire city of New Orleans to be evacuated. “The magnitude of the situation is untenable,” Blanco said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”
On Tuesday the city’s mayor Ray Nagin had to be airlifted from City Hall due to the rising waters. Officials are now planning to evacuate everyone inside the SuperDome where at least 20,000 have sought refuge. The emergency generators at the sports complex are now failing, there is no air conditioning and the building is surrounded by water. Meanwhile both city airports are underwater. The staff of the city’s newspaper the Times-Picayune had to flee its newsroom Tuesday due to the rising waters. The paper has been forced to publish only electronic versions of its newspaper. The city’s main public hospital is no longer functioning and being evacuated. The U.S. military is reportedly helping to evacuate more than 1,000 people from Tulane University Hospital. Doctors are also concerned about the possibility of outbreaks of disease spread through sewage contamination of drinking water, spoiled food, insects, and bites from snakes and other animals.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is making unprecedented preparations to house at least 1 million people in the region whose houses were damaged or destroyed. FEMA’s Bill Lokey called the hurricane “the most significant natural disaster to hit the United States.”
While the National Guard has been taking part in rescue operations and law enforcement, some 6,000 members of the Louisiana and Mississippi Guard have been forced to watch the catastrophe from 7,000 miles away in Iraq. 40 percent of Mississippi’s National Guard force and 35 percent of Louisiana’s is in Iraq. Over the past eight months 23 members of the Louisiana National Guard have died in Iraq–only New York’s Guard unit has suffered as many deaths.
The Times-Picayune reported the catastrophic flooding is expected to worsen over the next few days after rainfall from the hurricane flows into Lake Pontchartain from upstream rivers and streams. With the levees broken, the water will keep rising in the city of New Orleans until it is at same level as the lake and Mississippi River.
President Bush announced he would cut short his vacation by two days and return to Washington today. He spoke on Tuesday in San Diego. “Right now our priority is on saving lives and we are still in the midst of search and rescue operations,” Bush said. During Bush’s appearance in San Diego he also took the time to briefly play guitar with country singer Country Singer Mark Wills. Bush is expected to fly to Louisiana on Friday to tour parishes ravaged by the hurricane.
On the streets of New Orleans martial law has been declared. There have been reports of looting including many people breaking into stores in search of food and drinkable water. Others took electronics, alcohol and guns. The Times Picayune reported the looting was so widespread that even police officers took part. One uniform officer was photographed carrying six DVDs outside a Wal-Mart. Another was seen carrying a 27-inch tv.
Katrina is expected to become the costliest hurricane ever–more than Hurricane Andrew which cost $21 billion.
The hurricane is already affecting the nation’s economy. Most of the oil and gas production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico have been shut off since Monday and many sustained damage. The area normally accounts for a third of domestic oil production and a fifth of its natural gas output. The cost of gasoline is expected to soon rise to about three dollars a gallon in many parts of the country. Areas including Atlanta may also face severe gas shortages. The two main pipelines that bring gas and jet fuel to Atlanta are down. The region now only has a two-day supply of gasoline.
Questions are also being raised if the federal government could have done more to protect the region from the deadly flooding. In 1995 Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project. Over the past decade the Army Corps of Engineers has spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations. But another $250 million in work remained. According to press accounts, the federal funding largely froze up in 2003. Over the past two years the Times-Picayune paper has run at least nine articles that cite the cost of the Iraq invasion as a reason for the lack of hurricane and flood control funding. Earlier this year President Bush proposed significantly reducing the amount of federal money for the project. He proposed spending $10 million. Local officials said six times as much money was needed.
Meanwhile as this country remains focused on the devastation in the New Orleans region, tragedy also struck today in Iraq. More than 650 people have died in Baghdad in a stampede of Shiite pilgrims. The deaths came as about one million Shiites were marching in a major religious ceremony. Rumors spread that suicide bombers were in the crowd. Most of the victims were either crushed to death or drowned in the Tigris River. Earlier in the day, 16 Shiite pilgrims died after mortar rounds had been fired into the crowd.