Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said the death toll from Hurricane Katrina could top 10,000 in his state alone, though he emphasized his figure was premature and unofficial.
“My guess is that it will start at 10,000, but that is only a guess,” Vitter said, according to Agence France-Presse.
Angela Jenkins screams ‘help us, please’ as Katrina survivors crowd the Earnest Morial Convention Center Aug. 31, 2005 (courtesy: New Orleans Times-Picayune)
Vitter said his remarks were not based on any official death toll or body count.
The senator also called for immediate deployment of regular U.S. combat troops in New Orleans, saying the build-up of National Guard troops was too slow to quickly restore order.
Meanwhile, thousands of armed National Guardsmen streamed into New Orleans with food and water and the promise of a huge airlift as increasingly desperate local officials issued bitter pleas for federal assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“The cavalry is and will continue to arrive,” one Guardsman said.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said “battle-tested” Guardsmen are being sent to quell the unrest.
“They have M-16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will,” she said.
President Bush arrived in New Orleans this afternoon after touring the devastation in Alabama and Mississippi.
“We have a responsibility to help clean up this mess,” Bush said after meeting with the leaders of some Gulf Coast states. “It’s as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine.”
The president said earlier today the federal government is sending tons of food and millions of gallons of water along with 600 military police to ensure the relief aid is distributed safely.
“There’s a lot of people working hard to help those who have been affected I want to thank people for their efforts,” the president said. “The results are not acceptable.”
The Senate approved a $10.5 billion aid package yesterday, and the Pentagon promised 1,400 National Guardsmen a day to stop the looting.
“I need reinforcements, I need troops, man. I need 500 buses,” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said in a television interview this morning. “Get every dog-gone Greyhound bus line in the country and get that [expletive] moving to New Orleans … This is a major, major, major deal. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Lt. Gen. Steven Blum of the National Guard said a huge airlift of relief supplies will arrive today.
The 7,000 Guardsmen moving into Louisiana today are there mainly to restore order, Blum said.
He pointed out that half had just returned from overseas deployment and are “highly proficient in the use of lethal force.”
“But they are coming here to save Louisiana citizens. The only thing we are attacking is the effects of this hurricane,” he said.
The Coast Guard said more than 4,000 people have been rescued from rooftops, flooded neighborhoods and hospitals throughout the Gulf Coast region since Monday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.
Priority is being place on evacuating patients from hospitals.
The paper said 28 infants and young children have been successfully evacuated to Baton Rouge from the Charity and University hospitals in New Orleans.
But others still await evacuation. Helicopters finally began showing up yesterday morning, but the flights quickly were halted because people on the ground were firing guns. The evacuation re-started at about 9:30 this morning with a mix of private choppers and heavily armed Chinook helicopters operated by the National Guard.
At the New Orleans Convention Center, where corpses rotted along sidewalks, some of the thousands of hungry and thirsty refugees threw up their hands and screamed, “Thank you, Jesus!” as hundreds of Guardsmen arrived.
“Lord, I thank you for getting us out of here,” said Leschia Radford, according to the Associated Press.
But some remained angry.
“Hell no, I’m not glad to see them. They should have been here days ago. I ain’t glad to see ‘em. I’ll be glad when 100 buses show up,” said 46-year-old Michael Levy.
Others nearby affirmed him, yelling, “Hell, yeah! Hell yeah!”
“We’ve been sleeping on the … ground like rats,” Levy said. “I say burn this whole … city down.”
Early this morning, an explosion at a warehouse near the Mississippi River east of the French Quarter punctuated the chaos.
Several smaller blasts followed, along with acrid, black smoke.
Several railroad cars reportedly blew up, but according to NBC, the source was not toxic.
Yesterday, as the city descended into anarchy, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert delivered his stunning opinion that rebuilding the historic city would be pointless and a waste of money.
Hastert said it makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that’s seven feet under sea level.
“It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed,” the Illinois Republican said in an interview yesterday with the Daily Herald of Arlington, Ill.
Hastert’s comment reverberated with Fox News anchor Shepard Smith in New Orleans, who said, “In my wildest dreams, I cannot conjure up a vision of this city rebuilt.”
Meanwhile, in the heart of the city, corpses lay abandoned in street medians, fights and fires broke out and storm survivors battled for seats on buses that would carry them away from the chaos.
Nagin issued what he called a “desperate SOS.”
Five days after Hurricane Katrina roared into the Gulf Coast that is believed to have killed thousands, frustration, fear and anger mounted.
At the Superdome, where 30,000 were being evacuated by bus to the Houston Astrodome, fistfights and fires erupted as temperatures rose and the smell of undisposed human waste and dead bodies filled the air. Thousands waited in lines that stretched a half-mile to board yellow school buses that seemed few and far between.
After a traffic jam kept buses from arriving for nearly four hours, a near-riot broke out in the scramble to get on the buses that finally did show up, with a group of refugees breaking through a line of heavily armed National Guardsmen.
One military policeman was shot in the leg as he and a man scuffled for the MP’s rifle.
Ray of sunlight shines through roof of Louisiana Superdome where Katrina survivors have been staying (courtesy: New Orleans Times-Picayune)
Some of those among the mostly poor crowd had been in the dome for four days without air conditioning, working toilets or a place to bathe. An ambulance service airlifting the sick and injured out of the Superdome suspended flights as too dangerous after it was reported that a bullet was fired at a military helicopter.
There were reports of shootings and rapes inside the SuperDome.
About 15,000 to 20,000 people who had taken shelter at the convention center also grew increasingly hostile after waiting for buses for days amid the filth and the dead. Police Chief Eddie Compass said he sent in 88 officers to quell the situation at the building, but they were quickly driven back by an angry mob.
“We have individuals who are getting raped, we have individuals who are getting beaten,” Compass said. “Tourists are walking in that direction and they are getting preyed upon.”
A military helicopter tried to land at the convention center several times to drop off food and water. But the rushing crowd forced the choppers to back off. Troopers then tossed the supplies to the crowd from 10 feet off the ground and flew away.
In hopes of defusing the situation at the convention center, Nagin invited the refugees to march across a bridge to the city’s unflooded west bank for whatever relief they could find. But near riots made it difficult.
Nagin said: “Right now we are out of resources at the convention center and don’t anticipate enough buses.”
At least seven bodies were scattered outside the convention center, a makeshift staging area for those rescued from rooftops, attics and highways. The sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement.
The street outside the center, above the floodwaters, smelled of urine and feces, and was choked with dirty diapers, old bottles and garbage.
Every so often, an armored state police vehicle cruised in front of the convention center with four or five officers in riot gear with automatic weapons. But there was no sign of help from the National Guard.
At one point the crowd began to chant: “We want help! We want help!” Later, a woman, screaming, went on the front steps of the convention center and led the crowd in reciting the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd …”
“We’ve got people dying out here – two babies have died, a woman died, a man died,” said Helen Cheek. “We haven’t had no food, we haven’t had no water, we haven’t had nothing. They just brought us here and dropped us.”
Tourist Debbie Durso of Washington, Mich., said she asked a police officer for assistance and his response was, “Go to hell – it’s every man for himself.”
“This is just insanity,” she said. “We have no food, no water … all these trucks and buses go by and they do nothing but wave.”
Still, as bad as conditions are at the shelters, people continue to stream into them. By last night, 11 hours after the military began evacuating the Superdome, the arena held 10,000 more people than it did at dawn.
As he watched a line snaking for blocks through ankle-deep waters, New Orleans’ emergency operations chief Terry Ebbert blamed the inadequate response on the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“This is not a FEMA operation,” he said. “I haven’t seen a single FEMA guy. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”
FEMA officials said some operations had to be suspended in areas where gunfire has broken out.
A day after Nagin took 1,500 police officers off search-and-rescue duty to try to restore order in the streets, there were continued reports of looting, shootings, gunfire and carjackings – and not all the crimes were driven by greed.
When some hospitals tried to airlift patients, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan said, “there are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, ‘You better come get my family.”’
Helicopters dropped sandbags into the breach and pilings were being pounded into the mouth of the canal Thursday to close its connection to Lake Pontchartrain, state Transportation Secretary Johnny Bradberry said. He said contractors had completed building a rock road to let heavy equipment roll to the area by midnight.
The next step called for using about 250 concrete road barriers to seal the gap.
In Washington yesterday, the president urged a crackdown on the lawlessness.
“I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this – whether it be looting, or price gouging at the gasoline pump, or taking advantage of charitable giving or insurance fraud,” Bush said. “And I’ve made that clear to our attorney general. The citizens ought to be working together.”
Hastert said there was no question the people of New Orleans would rebuild their city, but noted that federal insurance and other federal aid was involved.
Hastert announced yesterday that the House, currently at the end of its summer break, would return for an emergency session to approve the $10.5 billion aid package.
“In the wake of this disaster, the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida should know that the United States Congress stands ready to help them in their time of need,” he said in a joint statement with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.