August 31, 2005 at 2:32 PM CDT - Updated July 10 at 9:26 PM
by Brett Martel, Associated Press Writer
Rescuers along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast pushed aside the dead to reach the living Tuesday in a race against time and rising waters, while New Orleans sank deeper into crisis and Louisiana's governor ordered storm refugees out of this drowning city.
Two levees broke and sent water coursing into the streets of the Big Easy a full day after New Orleans appeared to have escaped widespread destruction from Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 80 percent of the below-sea-level city was under water, up to 20 feet deep in places, with miles and miles of homes swamped.
"The situation is untenable," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. "It's just heartbreaking."
One Mississippi county alone said its death toll was at least 100, and officials are "very, very worried that this is going to go a lot higher," said Joe Spraggins, civil defense director for HarrisonCounty, home to Biloxi and Gulfport. In neighboring JacksonCounty, officials said at least 10 deaths were blamed on the storm.
Several victims in the county were from a beachfront apartment building that collapsed under a 25-foot wall of water as Katrina slammed the GulfCoast with 145-mph winds. And Louisiana officials said many were feared dead there, too, making Katrina one of the most punishing storms to hit the United States in decades.
After touring the destruction by air, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said it is not of case of homes being severely damaged, "they're simply not there. … I can only imagine that this is what Hiroshima looked like 60 years ago."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said hundreds, if not thousands, of people may still be stuck on roofs and in attics, and so rescue boats were bypassing the dead.
"We're not even dealing with dead bodies," Nagin said. "They're just pushing them on the side."
The flooding in New Orleans grew worse by the minute, prompting the evacuation of hotels and hospitals and an audacious plan to drop huge sandbags from helicopters to close up one of the breached levees. At the same time, looting broke out in some neighborhoods, the sweltering city of 480,000 had no drinkable water, and the electricity could be out for weeks.
With water rising perilously inside the Superdome, Blanco said the tens of thousands of refugees now huddled there and other shelters in New Orleans would have to be evacuated.
She asked residents to spend Wednesday in prayer.
"That would be the best thing to calm our spirits and thank our Lord that we are survivors," she said. "Slowly, gradually, we will recover; we will survive; we will rebuild."
A helicopter view of the devastation over the New Orleans area revealed people standing on black rooftops baking in the sunshine while waiting for rescue boats. A row of desperately needed ambulances were lined up on the interstate, water blocking their path. Roller coasters jutted out from the water at a Six Flags amusement park. Hundreds of inmates were seen standing on a highway because the prison had been flooded.
Sen. Mary Landrieu quietly traced the sign of the cross across her head and chest as she looked out at St. Bernard Parish, where only roofs peaked out from the water.
"The whole parish is gone," Landrieu said.
All day long, rescuers in boats and helicopters pulled out shellshocked and bedraggled flood refugees from rooftops and attics. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu said that 3,000 people have been rescued by boat and air, some placed shivering and wet into helicopter baskets. They were brought by the truckload into shelters, some in wheelchairs and some carrying babies, with stories of survival and of those who didn't make it.
"Oh my God, it was hell," said Kioka Williams, who had to hack through the ceiling of the beauty shop where she worked as floodwaters rose in New Orleans' low-lying Ninth Ward. "We were screaming, hollering, flashing lights. It was complete chaos."
Frank Mills was in a boarding house in the same neighborhood when water started swirling up toward the ceiling and he fled to the roof. Two elderly residents never made it out, and a third was washed away trying to climb onto the roof.
"He was kind of on the edge of the roof, catching his breath," Mills said. "Next thing I knew, he came floating past me."
Across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, more than 1 million residents remained without electricity, some without clean drinking water. An untold number who heeded evacuation orders were displaced and 40,000 were in Red Cross shelters, with officials saying it could be weeks, if not months, before most will be able to return.
Emergency medical teams from across the country were sent into the region and President Bush cut short his Texas vacation Tuesday to return to Washington to focus on the storm damage.
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Mike Brown warned that structural damage to homes, diseases from animal carcasses and chemicals in floodwaters made it unsafe for residents to come home anytime soon. And a mass return also was discouraged to keep from interfering with rescue and recovery efforts.
That was made tough enough by the vast expanse of floodwaters in coastal areas that took an eight-hour pounding from Katrina's howling winds and up to 15 inches of rainfall. From the air, neighborhood after neighborhood looked like nothing but islands of rooftops surrounded by swirling, tea-colored water.
In New Orleans, the flooding actually got worse Tuesday. Failed pumps and levees apparently spilled water from Lake Pontchartrain into streets. The rising water forced hotels to evacuate, led a hospital to boatlift patients to emergency shelters, and drove the staff of New Orleans' Times-Picayune newspaper out of its offices.
Officials late Tuesday began the process of using helicopters to drop 3,000-pound sandbags and dozens of giant concrete barriers into the breach, and expressed confidence the problem could be solved. But if the water rose a couple feet higher, it could wipe out water system for whole city, said New Orleans' homeland security chief Terry Ebbert.
A clearer picture of the destruction in Alabama became to emerge Tuesday: cement slabs where homes once stood, a 100-foot shrimp boat smoldering on its side, people searching for swept-away keepsakes. The damage in some areas appears to be worse than last year's Hurricane Ivan.
In devastated Biloxi, Miss., areas that were not underwater were littered with tree trunks, downed power lines and chunks of broken concrete. Some buildings were flattened.
The string of floating barge casinos crucial to the coastal economy were a shambles. At least three of them were picked up by the storm surge and carried inland, their barnacle-covered hulls sitting up to 200 yards inland.
One of the deadliest spots appeared to be Biloxi's QuietWaterBeach apartments, where authorities estimated 30 people were washed away, although the exact toll was unknown. All that was left of the red-brick building was a concrete slab.
"We grabbed a lady and pulled her out the window and then we swam with the current," 55-year-old Joy Schovest said through tears. "It was terrifying. You should have seen the cars floating around us. We had to push them away when we were trying to swim."
Said Biloxi Mayor A. J. Holloway: "This is our tsunami."
Looting became a problem in both Biloxi and in New Orleans, in some cases in full view of police and National Guardsmen. One police officer was shot in the head by a looter in New Orleans, but was expected to recover, Sgt. Paul Accardo, a police spokesman.
On New Orleans' Canal Street, which actually resembled a canal, dozens of looters ripped open the steel gates on clothing and jewelry stores, some packing plastic garbage cans with loot to float down the street. One man, who had about 10 pairs of jeans draped over his left arm, was asked if he was salvaging things from his store.
"No," the man shouted, "that's EVERYBODY'S store!"
Looters at a Wal-Mart brazenly loaded up shopping carts with items including micorwaves, coolers and knife sets. Others walked out of a sporting goods store on Canal Street with armfuls of shoes and football jerseys.
Outside the broken shells of Biloxi's casinos, people picked through slot machines to see if they still contained coins and ransacked other businesses.
"People are just casually walking in and filling up garbage bags and walking off like they're Santa Claus," said Marty Desei, owner of a Super 8 motel.
Insurance experts estimated the storm will result in up to $25 billion in insured losses. That means Katrina could prove more costly than record-setting Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which caused an inflation-adjusted $21 billion in losses.
Oil prices jumped by more than $3 a barrel on Tuesday, climbing above $70 a barrel, amid uncertainty about the extent of the damage to the Gulf region's refineries and drilling platforms.
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, with the potential to dump 8 inches of rain and spin off deadly tornadoes.
Katrina left 11 people dead in its soggy jog across South Florida last week, as a much weaker storm.
Associated Press reporters Holbrook Mohr, Mary Foster, Allen G. Breed, Brett Martel, Adam Nossiter and Jay Reeves contributed to this report.