Storm Cleanup May Be Biggest In U.S. History

By Elizabeth Williamson and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

The Southern Baptist Convention has sent 1,100 volunteers from across the country to the region, organized into 64 mobile units to clear fallen trees, cook and serve meals, and help repair damaged homes.

The church expected to deploy more than 10,000 volunteers to the area in coming weeks. But as of yesterday evening, only about 40 volunteers had reached the outskirts of the flooded area. Roads and bridges were impassable or closed, and for as many as 200 miles outside the disaster area, gasoline supplies had been exhausted by motorists evacuating several days ago or had been damaged by the storm.

At one point, the church's North American headquarters in Alpharetta, Ga., was fielding e-mails requesting help by victims with no other means of communication. In one, a doctor in Mandeville, La., begged for chain saws needed to clear trees and debris from a local hospital.

"I heard a term today I've never heard before: 'cities of refuge,' " said Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization in the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters. "It's just an indication of the large number of homeless and the tremendous strain put on relief organizations to meet these people's needs."

Military officials said the biggest obstacle -- in both the short and long term -- to the relief effort is likely to be devastation of infrastructure, including destroyed roads, washed-out bridges, and flooded and debris-laden airports where planes cannot land.

Such problems could require military assistance to states for many months, said Northern Command spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly, noting that some Air Force bases are still supporting relief from destruction caused by last year's hurricanes.

National Guard officials in the states said the scope of the disaster was stretching the manpower limits of their units, many of which have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two years.

"What brings in the active-duty military is the fact that the disaster has overcome the state response, when the state is getting overwhelmed," Kelly said. Getting power up and running as well as water supplies will also prove major tasks, he said.

The Salvation Army's Hood said the effort will be long and expensive. "Our position is, we stay until all the needs are met, and that will be a long time," he said. "Our typical philosophy is, let's go in, do the work, stay as long as needed and then figure out how to pay for it, and so far the American public has never let us down."

Staff writers Jacqueline Salmon in Little Rock and Michael Laris in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company