washingtonpost.com
Troops Escalate Urgency of Evacuation

By Timothy Dwyer and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 9, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 8 -- Outside Kajun's Pub, between the relatively dry French Quarter and the heavily flooded Ninth Ward, bar owner JoAnn Guidos loaded up her 1991 Ford Econoline van with clothing, liquor and other necessities Thursday morning. After holding out for 10 days, Guidos and her friends were finally leaving New Orleans and heading to high ground.

The beer was still cold, thanks to a working generator, and hopes for customers were strong as the flood-ravaged city fills with thirsty soldiers and emergency workers.

But on Wednesday night, Guidos said, armed federal agents identifying themselves as U.S. marshals confiscated her weapons and ordered her and six friends to leave by noon Thursday.

"When you get 15 M-16s pointed at you and they line you up against the wall, it's kind of scary," said Guidos, 55.

With floodwaters continuing to recede and cleanup efforts beginning in earnest, police and the military set out on an aggressive door-to-door campaign here Thursday, urging remaining residents to leave or be removed by force.

The former Big Easy took on the air of a military encampment, as thousands of reserve and active-duty troops began patrolling the city and assisting police in search-and-rescue missions. Houses were marked with codes indicating whether any residents -- living or dead -- were found inside. Emergency workers intensified efforts to divide the city into grids in order to methodically retrieve an unknown number of corpses still in the floodwaters or entombed in ruined homes and businesses.

Although the mayor issued a forcible evacuation order, Louisiana and federal officials said they remained hopeful that most stragglers will leave voluntarily when faced with urgent warnings about dwindling supplies and hazardous floodwaters.

"We need everybody out so we can continue with the work of restoring this city," Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen, the U.S. Coast Guard chief of staff who has taken over the federal response in New Orleans, said early in the day on CBS.

P. Edwin Compass, the superintendent of police, said there are thousands of people remaining in the city but that authorities are determined to get everyone out. He said as little force as necessary would be used but that staying is not an option. Anyone with a weapon, even one legally registered, will have it confiscated, he said.

"No one will be able to be armed," Compass said. "Guns will be taken. Only law enforcement will be allowed to have guns."

The evacuation effort, however, appeared haphazard at best. Affluent areas that were not flooded, such as parts of the Garden District and Uptown, appear to be a low priority for mandatory evacuations.

In the dry neighborhood of Marigny Triangle, residents lounged in lawn chairs while listening to music blaring from "Radio Marigny," an impromptu outdoor music station. The area remained largely untouched by floodwaters, and residents say they see little reason to leave.

Peter and Amy Bas, who have four children ages 5 to 14, noted that they had already cleaned debris from their street. As the couple relaxed in their front yard, a Louisiana state trooper cruised by and asked if they needed diapers.

"Where are we going to go?" Peter Bas asked. "They're going to take us and put us somewhere with 5,000 other people? We're going to stay."

Amy Bas added: "It could happen, but you think you're living in America and nobody is going to make you leave your home."

Police and the National Guard were aided by hundreds of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, who canvassed the French Quarter and neighborhoods surrounding the convention center and Superdome.

Active-duty U.S. troops such as the 82nd Airborne lack law enforcement authority in a domestic city such as New Orleans, and therefore must avoid direct involvement in forcibly evicting people. Local police warned that they expected friction with residents as they moved forcefully to pull them out, 82nd Airborne commanders said.

The paratroopers, along with other U.S. soldiers, patrolled parts of the city section by section in boats, trucks and on foot, looking to persuade more stragglers to leave.

"Hey! Evacuation!" Sgt. Geriah McAvin, 27, of Detroit yelled toward a block of red brick apartments as his 82nd Airborne platoon rolled into a flooded housing project in two lumbering, five-ton trucks. "Hey! We're here to take you out of here."

One man on crutches waved to the passing trucks from his front stoop. But when the five-ton circled around to get him, he hesitated.

"You're not taking me to the Superdome?" asked Alfred Jones, 43.

"No Superdome!" Dennison said.

Eventually, Jones gave in, wincing and moaning in pain as the soldiers lifted him onto the truck. Jones, who lived alone, has severe arthritis in his legs and said he had survived with the help of a friend who brought him food. But his friend left a few days ago, and Jones had not eaten for at least a day and he ran out of water on Wednesday. Given his leg condition, waving down a helicopter was out of the question, he said.

With major levee breaks patched earlier this week, and a growing number of pumps sending water into nearby Lake Pontchartrain, the floodwaters appeared to be dropping quickly on Thursday. Drier conditions in many areas allowed crews to step up efforts clearing branches, lumber, bricks and other debris, piling the rubble along roadsides and trolley tracks on St. Charles Avenue and other once-picturesque boulevards.

The Environmental Protection Agency also continued to monitor the foul and polluted floodwater that still covers much of New Orleans, testing for more than 100 kinds of chemicals, according to EPA Administrator Steve Johnson. The fetid water, along with the toxic sediment left behind, is one of the main reasons authorities are so adamant about a full evacuation, officials said.

"The water is unsafe," Johnson said in an interview. "This is not just putting in a couple of water bottles. . . . Ultimately we will do whatever testing is needed to assure ourselves, and the public, that the land and water is safe."

EPA officials hope to begin testing the sediment left in the hurricane's wake as early as next week, but they are waiting for an independent scientific board to approve their soil-testing plan. Johnson said he and others are "not letting bureaucracy get in the way" but are intent on devising a credible scientific approach to the survey.

As of Thursday, the official death toll from Hurricane Katrina rose to 118 in Louisiana and 201 in Mississippi. But those numbers, provided by authorities in charge of processing the dead, contrast wildly with projections and the preparations that are underway.

In Louisiana, a contractor working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency has set aside 25,000 body bags, and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has said as many as 10,000 people could be dead in the city.

Ten days after the Category 4 storm struck the Gulf Coast, many officials said they still do not know what to expect, nor are they willing to provide projections for a final death toll.

"We're not giving estimates -- we're not looking for a body count," said Melissa Walker, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, working at the state emergency operations center. "These are individual lives that are lost, and each one of them is important."

One example of the difficulty in obtaining reliable information can be seen in St. Bernard Parish, a devastated area 20 miles southeast of downtown New Orleans. Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) said earlier this week that he was told that as many as 100 people died at a warehouse in Chalmette while awaiting rescue, but Melancon later said that number was incorrect.

Staff writers Dan Eggen, Juliet Eilperin, Sue Anne Pressley and Cheryl W. Thompson in Washington; Robert E. Pierre in New Orleans; and Jacqueline L. Salmon in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company