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New Orleans collects dead as officials dodge blame

September 4, 2005

By Mark Egan

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – New Orleans began the gruesome task
of collecting its thousands of dead on Sunday as the Bush
administration tried to save face after its botched rescue
plans left the city at the mercy of Hurricane Katrina.

Except for rescue workers and scattered groups of people,
streets in the once-vibrant capital of jazz and good times were
all but abandoned after a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands
of refugees into neighboring Texas and other states.

Battered and sickened survivors made no attempt to disguise
their anger: “We have been abandoned by our own country, ”
Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, just south of
New Orleans, told NBC’s Meet the Press.

“It’s not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New
Orleans,” Broussard said. “Bureaucracy has committed murder
here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to
stand trial before Congress now.”

After a nightmare confluence of natural disaster and
political ineptitude that al Qaeda-linked Web sites called
evidence of the “wrath of God” striking America, National Guard
troops and U.S. marshals patrolled the city, stricken in the
days after the hurricane by anarchic violence and looting.

Local and federal officials said they expected to find
thousands of corpses still floating in flood waters or locked
inside homes and buildings destroyed by the devastating storm
that struck the U.S. Gulf coast last Monday.

“When we remove the water from New Orleans, we’re going to
uncover people who died hiding in houses, who got caught by the
flood. People whose remains will be found in the street,” U.S.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Fox News.

AS UGLY AS YOU CAN IMAGINE

“There’ll be pollution. It is going to be about as ugly a
scene as you can imagine.”

Later, Chertoff flew into New Orleans and said the search
for storm victims would be arduous. “Let me be clear: we’re
going to have to go house to house in this city,” he said.
“This is not going to happen overnight.”

President George W. Bush, who in a rare admission of error,
conceded on Friday that the results of his administration’s
relief efforts were unacceptable, said on Saturday he would
send 7,200 more active-duty troops over three days.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld toured a medical facility
at New Orleans’ international airport on Sunday. He spoke and
shook hands with military and rescue officials but walked right
by a dozen refugees lying on stretchers just feet away from
him, most of them extremely sick or handicapped.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was touring the Mobile,
Alabama, area, in her native state.

A further 10,000 National Guard troops were being sent to
storm-hit Louisiana and Mississippi, raising the total to
40,000. A total of 54,000 military personnel are now committed
to relief efforts.

Lawmakers promised to allocate more relief money in coming
weeks after Bush signed a $10.5 billion aid package for Gulf
Coast areas hit by Katrina.

LOOKING FOR THE DEAD

Towns along the Gulf Coast ripped apart by Katrina were
beginning the enormous task of reconstruction and accounting
for the dead. In hard-hit Biloxi, Mississippi, homes and cars
still lay piled up on each other or under trees, and power
lines dangled everywhere.

Well over 100 deaths had been confirmed in Mississippi and
“we are finding new casualties in the debris,” Biloxi town
spokesman Vincent Creel said on Saturday.

The living told tales of horror in stricken New Orleans.

“There were bodies floating everywhere. Lots of them. Some
had bullets in them,” said Michael Davis, 18, as he described
his escape from a neighborhood immersed in more than 10 feet (3
metres) of water last week. He ultimately found refuge at a
domed arena in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Mississippi largely escaped the turmoil in New Orleans but
officials warned of a serious risk of dysentery and other
diseases from contaminated water.

“It’s not a disaster, it’s a catastrophe,” Harrison
County’s health director, Bob Trabnicek, said in Biloxi.

“Why they don’t try to get us out of here, I don’t know,”
said Ella Robertson, 51, as she paced back and forth on a
debris-lined Biloxi street. “Waiting, that’s all we can do.”

The storm’s impact was felt across the United States as gas
prices rose to well over $3 a gallon after Katrina’s 140-mph
(225-kph) winds shut eight oil refineries and crippled others.

‘TWO CATASTROPHES’

Defending the administration’s response and disaster
planning, Chertoff said the hurricane and flood in New Orleans
were “two catastrophes” that presented an unprecedented
challenge.

“That perfect storm of combination of catastrophes exceeded
the foresight of the planners and maybe anybody’s foresight,”
the homeland security chief said.

Critics have said the Federal Emergency Management Agency
has lost its effectiveness since it became part of the Homeland
Security Department in a post-September 11 reorganization.

Rice was slammed by critics on the Internet after she
attended a New York performance of the Monty Python musical
“Spamalot” on Wednesday, a day after New Orleans flooded.

After returning to Washington, she defended the
administration against charges the slow government response and
prolonged suffering of New Orleans’ predominantly black storm
victims were signs of racial neglect.

“That Americans would somehow in a color-affected way
decide who to help and who not to help, I just don’t believe
it,” said Rice, the administration’s highest-ranking black
official.

The Washington Post reported on Sunday that Bush
administration officials were blaming state and local
authorities for the disaster response problems. The newspaper
said the administration was rebuffed in an effort to take
control of police and National Guard units reporting to
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat.

(Additional reporting by Kerry Wutkoski and Phil Barbara in
Washingon; Mark Babineck in New Orleans; Erwin Seba, Paul Simao
and Jim Loney in Baton Rouge, Peter Cooney and Adam Tanner in
Houston, Matt Daily in Biloxi, Steve Holland, Charles Aldinger,
John Whitesides and Eric Walsh in Washington)




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