In New Orleans, a Desperate Exodus

New Orleans
High winds and heavy flooding devastate the greater New Orleans area following Hurricane Katrina. (Vincent Laforet -- Reuters Pool Photo)

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By Sam Coates and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 1, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 31 -- Frantic authorities escalated efforts to empty this submerged city Wednesday, with the mayor saying that as many as 100,000 people still needed to be evacuated and federal officials readying plans to transport as many as 23,000 refugees of Hurricane Katrina from the Superdome to Houston's Astrodome.

The city grew even more desperate as thousands fled on foot, hundreds of residents clambered onto rooftops to escape floodwaters, and looters plundered abandoned stores for food, liquor and guns. Things have spiraled so out of control, that the city's mayor told the Associated Press that he has ordered police officers to focus on looters and give up search-and-rescue efforts. He also warned that hundreds if not thousands of residents could be dead.

People who had resisted previous evacuation orders, including many elderly and infirm residents, lined up on highways and perched on islands of dry ground waiting for help. They were flown to safety in airborne baskets, ferried in boats or floated in bright-orange plastic buckets, one at a time.

The escalating crisis in New Orleans and along the hard-hit Gulf Coast prompted a surge of activity from the federal government, which dispatched Navy ships to assist in rescue efforts and declared a public health emergency for the region. President Bush, surveying the hurricane- and flood-ravaged area from the air earlier in the day, ordered a coordinated recovery effort for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

But most of the attention Wednesday was focused on the historic and storied city of New Orleans, which had escaped the worst of Katrina's direct onslaught on Monday, only to be inundated by floodwaters that overwhelmed its extensive system of protective levees and pumps.

Local and federal officials estimated that it could take at least a month to drain all the water that has flowed into the bowl-shaped city, while Mayor Ray Nagin said residents might not be able to return for as long as 16 weeks. Nagin also warned that the city's death toll -- which has been impossible to tally so far -- could be catastrophic.

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water" along with others who have died while trapped in their attics, Nagin told the Associated Press. When asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."

Other officials from the state and federal government urged caution in trying to estimate the number killed.

Nagin also estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 people stayed in the city of 485,000 despite earlier evacuation orders, and said they would now be evacuated at the rate of 14,000 to 15,000 a day. He said the city would "not be functional" for about three months.

"It will probably be the largest disaster in the history of the country," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said in Baton Rouge, the drier Louisiana city serving as the central staging ground for New Orleans rescue efforts. "Right now every asset is being brought to bear."

Authorities said floodwaters had leveled off or even began receding in some neighborhoods Wednesday. But the Superdome, which has served for days as a dark and dreary shelter for about 23,000 refugees, was surrounded by several feet of water that showed little evidence of dropping late in the day.

The flooding slowed plans announced by state and federal officials Wednesday morning to move the Superdome inhabitants 350 miles west to another stadium, the Astrodome. Millions in the region also remained without power, while hundreds of roads were impassable because of collapse or flooding.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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