Confusion reigned today over whether officials will force people out of their homes in New Orleans.
A Louisiana official said this morning the state won't make people leave their homes in the besieged city just one day after New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin authorized law enforcement officers and the military to force the evacuation of all residents who refuse to leave. Released late Tuesday, Nagin's emergency declaration targets all those still in New Orleans who have not been designated by government officials as helping with the relief effort.
As the controversy over forced evacuations deepened, the White House announced that President Bush is asking Congress for $51.8 billion in immediate aid for the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe.
White House Press spokesman Scott McClellan said the money will be used for "ongoing search and rescue operations, food, water, medicine, and actions to address public health issues that may arise, among other things." Most of the funding will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but nearly $2 billion is earmarked for the military.
He said that the $10.5 billion down payment approved last week "is being spent more quickly than we even anticipated" and that more will be needed.
In an afternoon briefing, FEMA head Michael D. Brown said that for the first time, his agency will distribute debit cards worth a minimum of $2,000 to households affected by Hurricane Katrina. Evacuees could use the money for food, shelter, clothing or whatever else they needed as a result of the storm, according to Brown.
"The concept is to give them some cash in hand which empowers them to make their own decision about what they need to rebuild their lives," he said.
In the first government estimate of Katrina's economic impact, the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office said the damage could cost as many as 400,000 jobs in the coming months and slash the nation's economic growth by between half and one percentage point in the second half of the year.
"Evidence to date suggests that overall economic effects will be significant but not overwhelming," the CBO said in a letter to lawmakers. The CBO said the expected cost is less than initially thought because of progress in opening oil refineries and restarting pipelines in the region. Government officials have called Katrina one of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history.
Federal environmental and health officials today also cautioned about the dangers from the water that remains in New Orleans.
In a briefing for reporters, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency said that the flood waters are so contaminated with sewage that contact by rescue workers and remaining residents is dangerous, the Associated Press reported. "Human contact with the flood water should be avoided as much as possible," said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.
Meanwhile in Baton Rouge, La., Ed Jones, chief of disaster recovery and mitigation for the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security, said the decision to use the military and state rescue personnel to forcibly evacuate citizens from New Orleans lies with the governor, not with the mayor.
National Guard and state rescue workers have not received any communication from Mayor Nagin about forcing people out of their homes and an order to take such action would need to come from the governor, said Jones at disaster headquarters in Baton Rouge.
At this point, Jones said, National Guard and state rescue workers "will not force people out."
"It's a very tough decision to force an American out of their home," Jones said.
But later in New Orleans, Police Supt. Eddie Compass said city officials would go forward with the mayor's plan. He said once the "voluntary evacuations take place, then we will concentrate our efforts and forces to mandatorily evacuate residents."
Compass said thousands of people still wanted to voluntarily evacuate the city.
"We hope that most people cooperate," Compass said. "We have a large enough manpower force with the army and the state, city and federal agencies to do this expeditiously and as safe as possible." Compass said authorities will use "the minimal amount of force necessary to evacuate people from the city."
Officials said the authority for the mandatory evacuation order came through state statutes.
As of midday Wednesday, there were no reports of anyone being removed by force, according to wire service reports.
Several New Orleans residents, quoted by the Associated Press, said they had heard the mayor's order to evacuate and were reluctantly complying.
Dolores Devron, who left the city with her husband and her dog, said she was relieved the couple was allowed to take their pet with them but angry that they were ordered out.
"There are dead babies tied to poles and they're dragging us out and leaving the dead babies. That ain't right!" she screamed, according to the AP.
Lt. Gen. Joseph Inge, deputy commander of the U.S. Northern Command, said in a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon in Washington that civil authorities were discussing the forced evacuation issue.
He said National Guard troops were under the authority of Louisiana officials. He said regular U.S. troops "would not be used" in any forced evacuation.
"I understand that this is an issue," Inge said.
Jones said in Baton Rouge that FEMA has authorized $200 million for New Orleans and its surrounding parishes affected by the hurricane.
Aid to individuals affected by the flood -- including vouchers for food and housing and food stamps -- is expected to flow later today, he said. The biggest problem, he said, is getting phones and computers to people affected by the hurricane and either still stuck in homes or scattered in shelters in dozens of states to allow them to register with FEMA.
Brown said that so far, more than 319,000 people have registered with FEMA for assistance, but that officials believe that is a fraction of the number of people eligible for aid. He urged Katrina victims to call 1-800-621-FEMA or sign up on FEMA's Web site, FEMA.org.
He said that family members can sign up Katrina victims. He urged those who had not been severely affected by the disaster to wait two or three days to allow those the most affected to register first.
Brown, who has been severely criticized by Democrats for his agency's performance in the aftermath of Katrina, today brushed aside a call for his resignation by the House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
"The president is in charge of that, not me," he told reporters. He declined to say whether he had offered to resign.
Also today, Doug Thornton, vice president of the firm that manages the Superdome, said the structure sustained "severe" damage, and he estimated that repairing the facility will cost at least $100 million.
But, he said, it was premature to consider tearing the state-owned facility down, home of the New Orleans Saints, and officials won't have a firm estimate of the full extent of the damage for two months. Replacing the 30-year-old structure could cost up to $600 million, he said.
"We would like to salvage that building," said Thornton, noting that it hosted a papal visit, a presidential nomination and collegiate basketball championships. Structurally, he said, the facility is "steady as a rock."
In a briefing at the disaster command center in Baton Rouge, La., Thornton also detailed the extensive damage to the structure after it was battered by Hurricane Katrina and then used to shelter 25,000 people for five brutal days after the storm.
During the ordeal, those sheltering there reported assaults, rapes and suicides. Human waste piled up and food and water ran out. Thornton said that much of the damage was caused when 70 percent of the roof failed after winds up to 170 miles per hour ripped off exhaust fans on the roof and began tearing off the rubberized surface of the roof.
"Once you start peeling one piece of it off, it started peeling like an onion," said Thornton. He estimated that repairing the roof will cost $8 million alone.
Deane reported from Washington and Salmon reported from Baton Rouge.