August 30, 2005 at 6:51 PM CDT - Updated July 26 at 11:10 PM
Rescuers in boats and helicopters searched for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and brought victims, wet and bedraggled, to shelters Tuesday as the extent of the damage across the GulfCoast became ever clearer. The governor said the death toll in one Mississippi county alone could be as high as 80.
"The devastation down there is just enormous," Gov. Haley Barbour said on NBC's "Today" show, the morning after Katrina howled ashore with winds of 145 mph and engulfed thousands of homes in one of the most punishing storms on record in the United States.
In New Orleans, meanwhile, water began rising in the streets Tuesday morning, apparently because of a break on a levee along a canal leading to Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans lies mostly below sea level and is protected by a network of pumps, canals and levees. Many of the pumps were not working Tuesday morning.
Officials planned to use helicopters to drop 3,000-pound sandbags into the breach.
Barbour said there were unconfirmed reports of up to 80 deaths in HarrisonCounty — which includes devastated Gulfport and Biloxi — and the number was likely to rise. At least five other deaths across the GulfCoast were blamed on Katrina.
"We know that there is a lot of the coast that we have not been able to get to," the governor said. "I hate to say it, but it looks like it is a very bad disaster in terms of human life."
Along the GulfCoast, tree trunks, downed power lines and trees, and chunks of broken concrete in the streets prevented rescuers from reaching victims. Swirling water in many areas contained hidden dangers. Crews worked to clear highways. Along one Mississippi highway, motorists themselves used chainsaws to remove trees blocking the road.
Officials said it could be a week or more before many of the evacuees are allowed back. They warned people against trying to return to their homes, saying their presence would only interfere with the rescue and recovery efforts.
"What we're doing is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and we need people to cooperate," New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass said.
More than 1,600 Mississippi National Guardsmen were activated to help with the recovery, and the Alabama Guard planned to send two battalions to Mississippi.
In New Orleans, a city of 480,000 that was mostly evacuated over the weekend as Katrina closed in, those who stayed behind faced another, delayed threat: rising water. Failed pumps and levees apparently sent water from Lake Pontchartrain coursing through the streets.
The rising water forced one New Orleans hospital to move patients to the Louisiana Superdome, where some 10,000 people had taken shelter, authorities said.
In downtown New Orleans, streets that were relatively clear in the hours after the storm were filled with 1 to 1 1/2 feet of water Tuesday morning. Water was knee-deep around the Superdome. Canal Street was literally a canal. Water lapped at the edge of the French Quarter.
Little islands of red ants floated in the gasoline-fouled waters through downtown. The Hyatt Hotel and other high-rise around the Superdome had rows and rows of shattered windows.
"We know that last night we had over 300 folks that we could confirm were on tops of roofs and waiting for our assistance. We pushed hard all throughout the night. We hoisted over 100 folks last night just in the Mississippi area. Our crews over New Orleans probably did twice that," Capt. Dave Callahan of the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mississippi said on ABC.
National Guardsmen brought in people from outlying areas to the Superdome in the backs of big 2 1/2-ton Army trucks. Louisiana's wildlife enforcement department also brought people in on the backs of their pickups. Some were wet, some were in wheelchairs, some were holding babies and nothing else.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said on ABC: "The biggest concern is that this whole situation is totally overwhelming. I know the desperation of all of the folks who had evacuated. I know they desperately want to get in. In most cases, it is totally impossible for them to get in. The streets are inundated with water. The devastation is vast. And there's really — there's nothing they can do."
Late Monday, HarrisonCounty emergency operations center spokesman Jim Pollard said about 50 people had died in the county, with some 30 of the dead at a beach-side apartment complex in Biloxi. Three other people were killed by falling trees in Mississippi and two died in a traffic accident in Alabama, authorities said.
In Louisiana, Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' homeland security chief, said bodies were seen floating in the floodwaters in the hardest-hit areas. He could not give an estimate of deaths as of Tuesday morning, but said he believed the death toll would not be as great as some of the images of devastation would suggest.
The death toll does not include 11 deaths in South Florida when a much-weaker Katrina first hit land last week.
"This is our tsunami," Mayor A. J. Holloway of Biloxi, Miss., told The Biloxi Sun Herald.
Teresa Kavanagh, 35, of Biloxi, shook her head is disbelief as she took photographs of the damage in her hometown.
"Total devastation. Apartment complexes are wiped clean. We're going to rebuild, but it's going to take long time. Houses that withstood Camille are nothing but slab now," she said. Hurricane Camille killed 256 people in Louisiana and Mississippi in 1969.
In Biloxi mayor's office said the storm's surge put at least five casinos out of commission. The Hard Rock Cafe and Beau Rivage were severely damaged. The bottom floors of a condominium were all but washed away. All that remained of one hotel was the toilets.
Katrina's surge also demolished major bridges along the coast. The storm swept sailboats onto city streets in Gulfport and obliterated hundreds of waterfront homes, businesses, community landmarks and condominiums.
A foot of water swamped the emergency operations center at the HancockCounty courthouse — which sits 30 feet above sea level. The back of the courthouse collapsed under the onslaught.
The hurricane knocked out power to more than 1 million people from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, and authorities said it could be two months before electricity is restored to everyone. Katrina also disrupted petroleum output in the very center of the U.S. oil refining industry and rattled energy markets.
By midday Tuesday, Katrina was downgraded to a tropical depression, with winds around 35 mph. It was moving northeast through Tennessee at around 21 mph.
Forecasters said that as the storm moves north over the next few days, it could swamp the Tennessee and Ohio valleys with a potentially ruinous 8 inches or more of rain. On Monday, Katrina's remnants spun off tornadoes and other storms in Georgia that smashed dozens of buildings and were blamed for at least one death.
According to preliminary assessments by AIR Worldwide Corp., a risk assessment company, the insurance industry faces as much as $26 billion in claims from Katrina. That would make Katrina more expensive than the previous record-setting storm, Hurricane Andrew, which caused some $21 billion in insured losses in 1992 to property in Florida and along the GulfCoast.
Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said on CBS that it will be "quite awhile" before those displaced by the hurricane can return, particularly in areas close to downtown New Orleans. In some places, "it's going to be weeks at least before people can get back."
And once the floodwaters go down, "it's going to be incredibly dangerous" because of structural damage to homes, diseases from animal carcasses and chemicals in homes, Brown said.
At the Superdome, where power was lost early Monday, thousands spent a second night in the dark bleachers. With the air conditioning off, the carpets were soggy, the bricks were slick with condensation and anxiety was rising.
"Everybody wants to go see their house. We want to know what's happened to us. It's hot, it's miserable and, on top of that, you're worried about your house," said Rosetta Junne, 37.
Mike Spencer of Gulfport made the mistake of trying to ride out the storm in his house. He told NBC that he used his grandson's little surfboard to make his way around the house as the water rose around him.
Finally, he said, "as the house just filled up with water, it forced me into the attic, and then I ended up kicking out the wall and climbing up to a tree because the houses around me were just disappearing."
He said he wrapped himself around a tree branch and waited four or five hours.
Anne Anderson said she lost her family home in Gulfport.
"My family's an old Mississippi family. I had antiques, 150 years old or more, they're all gone. We have just basically a slab," she told NBC. She added: "Behind us we have a beautiful sunrise and sunset, and that is going to be what I'm going to miss the most, sitting on the porch watching those."
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