Page 2 of 2   <      

Guard Troops Descend on New Orleans

Outside the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, National Guard personnel work to evacuate survivors of Hurricane Katrina who sought refuge at the sports arena.
Outside the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, National Guard personnel work to evacuate survivors of Hurricane Katrina who sought refuge at the sports arena. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

At the Louisiana Superdome, still a vast bowl of filth and stench, those remaining ringed the outside perimeter and endured through another day of heat, hunger and exhaustion. Guardsmen passed out water to some there and on the streets while moving cargo from the stadium to the convention center -- even as they kept their eyes trained on rooftops and blind corners.

"We have to look out for snipers, unfortunately," said Staff Sgt. Paul Hall of the Louisiana National Guard. "That's been a big problem down here. They're like terrorists."

One military official said that as of Friday morning, 4,200 people had been evacuated, including 1,000 from the convention center, where many times that number spent days without any aid and where several corpses lay on the street Thursday. Another military official said that commanders had not been aware of the large and desperate concentration of people at the convention center until Wednesday, that the focus had been on evacuating the Superdome and conducting other emergency operations in the city.

"It had not perhaps been raised to our consciousness by the reports we had received," Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe, the chief operations officer of the U.S. Northern Command, said in a phone interview.

Many of the refugees lucky enough to get out Friday were nonetheless a long way from a cot and a meal. After accepting 15,000 people, Houston officials declared the Astrodome full and closed it to any more arrivals. They conceded they had overestimated the facility's capacity and began readying the Reliant Arena down the street and the convention center downtown for thousands more.

About 20 packed buses waited hours there for their passengers to be processed, even as other buses were sent four hours farther west to San Antonio.

Lockey said FEMA has rented more than 2,000 buses from across the country for the continuing evacuation and is moving them to the region. He said the agency has received offers of shelter from other states and the District, and had identified 2,600 available hospital beds in 12 states. The agency is working with the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs to move patients from New Orleans into those facilities.

Neither state nor federal officials could offer any estimates on how many residents still lingered in the Crescent City.

Numbers defined the parameters of the federal effort at the briefings in Baton Rouge. Dolph Diemont, regional emergency transportation official with the Department of Transportation, said the department had dispatched 1,400 trucks that have transported 17.1 million Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) , 5 million pounds of ice and 369 generators, as well as thousands of blankets and cots.

"We are positively making progress every day, every minute," he said.

Gen. Mark Graham, deputy commander of the Katrina task force overseeing rescue and relief, said six planes carried 438 people out of the city Friday. The airlift is expected to retrieve many more Saturday as additional aircraft arrive, and at least one military airfield will open to increase the count.

The commanders on the ground spoke confidently of the progress soon to be made. Lt. Gen. Steven Blum of the National Guard said that many of the Guard troops arriving in Louisiana had just returned from assignments overseas and are "highly proficient in the use of lethal force." He pledged to put down the violence "in a quick and efficient manner."

"The cavalry is and will continue to arrive," he said.

By Friday night, the number of National Guard troops was expected to reach 11,700 in Louisiana and 8,000 in Mississippi, with more than 5,000 troops still to come over the weekend. Add to that more than 2,500 Coast Guard personnel on the scene with more than 50 aircraft. Four Coast Guard cutters are stationed in the Mississippi River to offer communications and logistics support, said U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Sharon Richey. Even so, one frustrated state senator announced that he has lined up barges to float aid down the Mississippi River to stranded individuals. And from overseas, several Asian nations -- including tsunami-battered Sri Lanka -- promised to send money and disaster experts. Twenty-five countries agreed to release the equivalent of 2 million barrels of oil per day from strategic fuel reserves.

Daunting problems lie ahead. Maj. Gen. Bruce Green, an Air Force medical officer, expressed concern about the risk of those still in the city from dehydration, stress and mosquito-borne diseases.

As reports continued of famished and dehydrated people isolated across the Gulf Coast, angry questions were pressed about why the military has not been dropping food packets for them -- as was done in Afghanistan, Bosnia and in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami.

Bill Wattenburg, a consultant for the University of California Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and one of the designers of the earlier food drop programs, said that he has lobbied the administration and the military to immediately begin something similar. He said he was told that the military was prepared to begin, but that it was awaiting a request from FEMA.

"We know very well how to do this, and it's just incomprehensible that we're not," Wattenburg said.

The U.S. Energy Department reported Friday night that 1.5 million customers remained without electric power because of Katrina -- down slightly from 1.8 million without power on Thursday.

At nightfall, dozens again clustered under overhangs and awnings on the sidewalks in the Superdome area, saying they were either too afraid to go in or had tried and been refused admittance.

Canaan Spriggs, 31, and his extended family, including three infants, again prepared to sleep on the floor of a nearby parking garage. He said he was pleased by the sight of the military convoys but that the city was far from tame.

"It's quiet now, but the night-time is wild," he said. "They're sugarcoating it on the news. Come out here at night, but only if you have the National Guard with you. There are gunshots, and you hear people screaming for help.

"They'll need a lot of people out here to keep order," he warned.

Staff writers Justin Blum, Bradley Graham, Sari Horwitz, Marc Kaufman, Shankar Vedantam and Josh White in Washington, Jacqueline Salmon in Baton Rouge, La., and Peter Whoriskey in New Orleans contributed to this report.

<       2

© 2005 The Washington Post Company