Tens of thousands of refugees remain in New Orleans–four days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region. On Thursday New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin sent a desperate SOS to the country for more aid. The city is admitting that some survivors have not eaten or had water in three or four days. Corpses are floating in the floodwater. Thousands of people across the country are searching for relatives and friends — not knowing if they have survived the catastrophoe Nearly 2 million people remain without power. The Coast Guard reports there are still many residents stuck on their roofs seeking to be rescued. Officials fear thousands may be dead. The banner headline in this morning’s Time-Picayune newspaper reads “Help Us, Please.”
In Biloxi Mississippi, the first federal aid arrived only yesterday–three full days after the storm wiped out entire sections of the city. In smaller towns in Mississippi help still hasn’t arrived.
In New Orleans, nightmarish scenes were reported both inside and outside the City’s Convention Center. Outside an old man lay dead in a long chair in a grassy median. Infants wailed around him. Nearby, the corpse of an elderly woman lay stiffened in a wheelchair, covered by a plaid blanket. Another dead body was at her feet, wrapped in a white sheet. Inside thousands of refugees were trying to stay alive with little food, water and no electricity. Mayor Nagin said “the convention center is unsanitary and unsafe and we’re running out of supplies.” Federal relief officials have played almost no role. The head of FEMA, Michael Brown, admitted on CNN last night that his agency didn’t even know that thousands of hungry refugees were inside the convention center. Until yesterday the only food inside came after refugees broke into the center’s food-service area to retrieve water and other goods.
The head of New Orleans’ emergency operations blasted the federal government and FEMA for its slow response. The official Terry Ebbert said “This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace.” Ebbert went on to say ”FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.” Ebbert said “It’s criminal within the confines of the United States that within one hour of the hurricane they weren’t force-feeding us. It’s like FEMA has never been to a hurricane.”
FEMA has also been widely criticized in Mississippi where some towns are still waiting for federal aid to arrive. Lakeshore, Mississippi resident James Gibson said “There’s no FEMA. No Red Cross. No help. People are sick. The water is like toxic gumbo. We’re the forgotten little town that got blown away.” The state of Mississippi is reporting that there is a 50 mile stretch of coastline where 90 percent of the structures are destroyed.
Much of the federal government’s relief efforts are just beginning to be felt. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Department of Health of Human Services has promised to set up 40 emergency aid stations. As of yesterday only one was open and it was located 80 miles away from New Orleans. It took until Wednesday for the Pentagon to activate a major Navy hospital ship but it may take days before the ship actually arrives to the devastated region.
Violence has also increased on the streets of New Orleans. Armed citizens have reportedly taken over some of the relief sites. Shots have been fired at police officers and rescue helicopters. There have been reports of rapes, murders and carjackings. Residents continue to break into stores in search of everything from food and water to guns to luxury items. The White House announced it would have zero tolerance for looters–even for those taking essential items needed to stay alive. Louisiana Governor’s Kathleen Blanco warned that troops had orders to shoot to kill. She said “These troops are fresh back from Iraq, well trained, experienced, battle tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets. She went on to say “They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded. “These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.”
Early this morning explosions illuminated the pre-dawn sky. Officials are still investigating what caused the blasts.
The Pentagon said that by next week 24,000 troops will be on the ground to assist in recovery efforts, including 8,600 National Guard members by today who could be put to work in law enforcement. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said there are no plans to call back the 6,000 plus members of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard currently stationed in Iraq. But to make up for the shortfall, states from as far as Wisconsin are now sending Guard units. Meanwhile CNN is reporting that in some New Orleans precincts up to 20 percent of the police force has gone AWOL.
Criticism is also mounting over the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis. President Bush didn’t return from his vacation until Wednesday and several other top officials remain on summer breaks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been vacationing in New York City but returned to Washington on Thursday. Meanwhile Vice President Dick Cheney has been in Wyoming and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has been in Maine.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate convened a special session last night and passed a $10 billion emergency supplemental spending bill. The House is expected to vote on the measure today.
Private donors have given over $100 million to charities. On its website, FEMA lists a series of possible charities. The top three charities are: the Red Cross, Operation Second Harvest and Operation Blessing, which was founded by Christian televangelist Pat Robertson. Meanwhile the Red Cross announced last night that its shelters in the region are already at capacity with 76,000 refugees.
The international community, including the United Nations, has responded with offers of aid. UN Sec. General Kofi Annan said “The American people who have always been the most generous in responding to disasters in other parts of the world, have now themselves suffered a grievous blow.”