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Despite problems, better than before

An evacuating bus overturns; the Astrodome fills early. Still, Friday brought much-needed help.

Published September 3, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - On the fourth day after Hurricane Katrina hit, National Guard trucks loaded with supplies roared through the floodwaters and brought relief to a city verging on collapse.

As the trucks pulled up at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Friday, some of the thousands of evacuees threw up their hands and screamed "Thank you, Jesus!" But others cursed bitterly about how long it has taken to get food and water.

Problems continued to plague rescue efforts. A bus evacuating storm victims from the Superdome overturned, killing one and injuring about 50.

Officials in Houston stopped accepting Louisiana evacuees at the Astrodome because it filled up more quickly than expected. After 15,000 people had packed in, organizers said they had miscalculated and started sending the overflow into an adjacent arena and convention center.

President Bush flew in to inspect the damage and comfort victims, but was forced to acknowledge the federal response had been inadequate.

"The results are not acceptable," he said, pledging "to get the situation under control."

Federal officials said they had been overwhelmed by what insurance industry experts say is shaping up to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. With estimated insured losses now at $35-billion, and total losses up to $100-billion, it may surpass the $31.7-billion cost of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the most expensive catastrophe on American soil.

Ripples from the disaster continued to spread. Mississippi officials discovered what they called "a major oil spill" just downriver from New Orleans.

And an explosion at a warehouse rocked a wide area of New Orleans before daybreak, jolting residents awake, lighting up the sky and sending up a pillar of acrid gray smoke. A second large fire erupted downtown in an old retail building.

But water, not fire, is the city's biggest problem. Army engineers continued working to repair holes in the levees that blew open after Katrina.

Yet Army officials said they may try to make more holes. Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said engineers may create new breaches in the levees so that a combination of pumping and gravity will drain the water out.

Emptying the city of its chemical and sewage-tainted floodwaters will take until at least Thanksgiving, Army officials said.

Yet even some New Orleans residents question whether it's too late. Kernell Goudia, 36, has moved his family of four to Baton Rouge, La., where he plans to rent an apartment and enroll his daughters in school.

To him, what happened to New Orleans is worse than Sept. 11. After that tragedy, he said, "you could still go on the other side of New York and get you a sandwich. But with New Orleans, you can't. There's nothing there. It's a dead city."

Stuck in New Orleans

Just six weeks ago, 23-year-old Cyntrel Clay gave birth to her first child and named her Nevaeh - "heaven" spelled backward.

On Friday, Clay, a second-class petty officer in the U.S. Navy, was living on an overpass with her 55-year-old mother, her 78-year-old grandmother and her 96-year-old great-grandmother.

They had little food and water. The stench of urine and feces wafted from all around.

"I don't know what to do," Clay said. Because she's not eating, she stopped producing milk for Nevaeh, and her baby formula was running out.

While more than 94,000 hurricane refugees are living in 284 Red Cross shelters in nine states, tens of thousands of people stuck in New Orleans are wondering if they will get out alive.

On Thursday night, Mayor Ray Nagin lashed out at federal officials from President Bush on down.

"Get off your a---- and let's do something," the mayor told WWL-AM during an interview in which he cursed, yelled and ultimately burst into tears.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., said thousands of people are stranded in two swamped parishes south of New Orleans but they can't get the attention of federal officials.

But Melancon couldn't deliver that message to President Bush because he couldn't get past security.

"I've wasted time while people are dying," he said.

The cavalry

Amid the criticism of the federal effort, thousands of soldiers poured into the city, declaring themselves "the cavalry."

"As fast as we can, we'll move them out," said the cigar-chomping Lt. Gen. Russel Honore. "Worse things have happened to America. We're going to overcome this, too."

Minutes after soldiers arrived at the convention center, they set up food and water lines.

The crowd was mostly orderly and grateful for the first major supply convoy to reach the convention center, where corpses lay unattended.

But 46-year-old Michael Levy said he would rather see buses to take everyone out, never to return.

"I say burn this whole . . . city down," he said.

National Guardsmen carrying rifles and wearing camouflage gear also arrived at the Superdome, walking past a vast crowd of bedraggled people waiting to be rescued from the heat, the filth and the gagging stench inside the stadium.

Every time helicopters swept in with more troops, the rotor lifted storm debris from nearby Interstate 10 and swirled it into refugees' eyes.

"Look at these men getting off," said Kirk Moss, 39, separated from his five children and girlfriend since he put them on a boat two days ago. "What do we need military for? We need food. They're probably eating at night. We're not."

A National Guard spokesman said 7,000 guardsmen would be dedicated to restoring order. He said half of them just returned from overseas and are "highly proficient in the use of lethal force."

The soldiers took the place of police, who had lost control of the city to looters. Police Chief Eddie Compass, near tears, admitted even his own officers had taken food and water from stores. Officers were walking off the job by the dozens.

And state police Cmdr. Henry Whitehorn said some troopers, who are also victims of the storm, decided to resign rather than be sent to New Orleans.

"They lost everything and don't feel it's worth going back and taking fire from looters," he said.

Buses and black tags

Military helicopters airlifted hundreds of sick and injured storm victims to a field hospital at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

At the airport the evacuees were assessed and treated on the scene or evacuated out of the state. One nurse told CNN that the medical teams might have to "black tag" some patients, deciding their chance of survival was too slim.

Not even leaving the city guaranteed survival.

About 130 miles west of New Orleans, the driver of a bus carrying about 50 evacuees to Texas lost control and the bus flipped. One evacuee died and 17 were injured.

Nearly 500 buses were supposed to transport 25,000 people from the Superdome to the Astrodome.

But the first bus to arrive in Houston was not provided by FEMA. It was a yellow Orleans Parish school bus driven by an unidentified teenager.

He had stolen the bus, loaded it with family members and left ahead of the official caravan.

Initially, Texas officials refused to admit the school bus refugees to the Astrodome. Then a Red Cross official named Margaret O'Brien-Molina noticed the children aboard. She walked them in, holding the hand of a 5-year-old girl.

"That little girl, think about what she's been through the last few days," she explained.

Before the day was over, the Astrodome was full and freeway signs that had welcomed refugees were switched to a different message: "Houston shelters are full. Go to Dallas or San Antonio."

Times staff writers Jeff Harrington, Thomas C. Tobin and Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report, which includes information from the Times-Picayune, WWL-TV, CNN, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press.

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