The Relief Effort
Storm Cleanup May Be Biggest In U.S. History
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Charities and the federal government launched what aid agencies predicted could be the longest and costliest relief effort in U.S. history, as workers began arriving last night in states devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and as the U.S. military organized an intensive response by already stretched National Guard and active-duty forces.
The American Red Cross, working in concert with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called its plan to house and feed tens of thousands of people the biggest response to a single natural disaster in the organization's 124-year history. With deep flooding that may not recede for weeks in areas across three states, charities said that thousands could remain homeless for more than a year and that the rebuilding would probably take even longer.
"This disaster response is going to exceed our response to last year's back-to-back four hurricanes" in Florida, said Red Cross spokeswoman Devorah Goldburg. That effort included serving 16.5 million meals and providing the equivalent of 430,000 nights of shelter. "We're anticipating that Katrina will exceed those numbers."
The needs were as immense as they were varied, ranging from urgent search-and-rescue requests to pressing demands for shelter and clean water, and daunting longer-range challenges that were barely coming into focus last night.
The Air Force, Navy and Army began mobilizing troops and equipment to augment National Guard units, including helicopters with night-search gear and amphibious watercraft with civilian teams for rescuing stranded citizens. The Navy and U.S. Merchant Marine readied five ships in Norfolk and Baltimore: the hospital ship USNS Comfort, as well as helicopter-carrying vessels and ships that can carry landing craft, construction equipment, Humvees, forklifts, food, fuel and water-purification equipment.
The Pentagon yesterday created an unprecedented domestic task force -- headed by a three-star general and based in Mississippi -- to coordinate emergency operations by Guard and active-duty forces across four states. Driving the U.S. military response was the realization of the "sheer magnitude" of the catastrophe once dawn broke, said Michael Kucharek, spokesman for U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs.
The Red Cross had opened more than 200 shelters yesterday in concert with FEMA, which mobilized before the storm when President Bush designated Louisiana and Mississippi disaster areas. That allowed FEMA rescue workers to bring in water, ice and ready-to-eat meals before Katrina hit.
While rescue units pulled stranded residents from floodwater yesterday, a 50-member FEMA team was in Louisiana, making plans to order, buy and move hundreds of thousands of mobile homes into the area. FEMA will reimburse flood victims for rental housing, FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said. The need was made more urgent yesterday when Louisiana officials decided to evacuate the Superdome, a city-designated shelter damaged by wind and flooding and made miserable for its inhabitants by a lack of electricity and clean water.
"We were very well-prepared, but it's not going to be a breeze," Rule said. "This is a very large, large disaster, and it's going to require a lot of teamwork and patience."
The Salvation Army said its relief costs for Katrina will probably exceed the $30 million spent on Florida hurricane relief last year.
The nascent effort was hindered yesterday because flooding rendered so many storm-damaged areas inaccessible.
"We're getting phone calls asking for teams to rescue people still trapped in their homes," especially in New Orleans and the Mississippi cities of Biloxi and Gulfport, said Maj. George Hood, national community relations secretary for the Salvation Army. The charity was feeding and housing storm victims on the perimeters of the disaster. "We have a team 400 or 500 people in Jackson, Mississippi, [waiting for] the green light, but it's the floodwaters holding us back," Hood said. Accurate information about the disaster area was scarce, "because nothing is working," he said.