Katrina Takes Environmental Toll

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By Timothy Dwyer, Jacqueline L. Salmon and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 6 -- The dank and putrid floodwaters choking this once-gracious city are so poisoned with gasoline, industrial chemicals, feces and other contaminants that even casual contact is hazardous, and safe drinking water may not be available for the entire population for years to come, state and federal officials warned Tuesday.

Mayor Ray Nagin authorized law enforcement officers and the military to force the evacuation of all residents who refuse to heed orders to leave. Nagin's emergency declaration, released late Tuesday, targets those still in the city unless they have been designated by government officials as helping with the relief effort.

It came as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gingerly pumped swill into Lake Pontchartrain, where rising water levels could increase pressure on levees that may have been damaged when Katrina hit but cannot be checked because they are under water on the city side.

As hundreds of police officers, emergency workers and volunteers waded through flooded neighborhoods trying to coax remaining residents from their ruined homes, health officials offered the first tentative assessments of the environmental damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina and its resulting floods: They ranged from contaminated water to the destruction of coastline that acts as a buffer against hurricanes and other severe weather.

The fallout from Katrina continued to buffet Washington; President Bush and members of Congress announced at least three separate probes into the faltering governmental response to the storm and its aftermath. Bush, reeling from bipartisan complaints about the slow federal reaction, promised to lead an investigation to "find out what went right and what went wrong" and informed congressional leaders of a request for as much as $40 billion in additional relief funds.

State officials released new tallies of Katrina's destruction, with up to 160,000 homes in Louisiana destroyed and nearly 190,000 public school students displaced by the storm and its aftermath.

Louisiana health officials reported 83 confirmed deaths but cautioned that the total is likely to soar into the thousands as corpses are uncovered in receding floodwaters. As of late Tuesday, 59 bodies had arrived at a temporary morgue in St. Gabriel, La., that is set up to handle more than 5,000 dead if necessary.

"It could take days, it could take years, it could take lifetimes" to identify some victims, said Bob Johannessen of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Some local officials in Louisiana were adamant in placing most of the blame on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies.

"Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area," Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, said on CBS's "Early Show." "So I'm asking Congress, please investigate this now. Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot."

Amid the detritus in New Orleans, officials began to shift their focus from rescue to recovery, affixing red tags to floating corpses and noting locations by global satellite positioning for retrieval later. Survivors were being talked out of staying.

Micheline Doley, 24, and three companions agreed to abandon their dry third-floor apartment on South Liberty Street after aid officials warned they would no longer drop off water for them. Doley said she had a battery-powered television, hot water and gas for cooking.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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