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Hurricane Katrina

As grim task looms, focus is on the living

A federal official expects thousands dead. But there are too many survivors for rescuers to worry about that now.

Published September 5, 2005

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NEW ORLEANS - Rescuers floated down the oil-black, flooded streets of New Orleans and searched for hidden survivors of Hurricane Katrina Sunday, while storm victims prayed in crippled church buildings and on battered street corners.

A week after the hurricane crashed into Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the federal government said for the first time that the storm's death toll probably will reach into the thousands.

But disaster officials have not turned their full attention to the dead. They are too busy with the living.

While much of New Orleans has been evacuated and hundreds lie dead in full view, the city's neighborhoods remain full of survivors. Rescuers continued to launch one mission after another - by boat, bus and helicopter - trying to pull them to safety.

"Oh, thank you Jesus!" 14-year-old Jenny Michel said as rescue workers aboard an amphibious purple tour boat plucked her and her 62-year-old grandmother from their home on Urquhart Street. Once aboard, Jenny looked at her rescuers and smiled. "I feel safe with y'all," she said.

The Coast Guard asked survivors awaiting rescue to hang out brightly colored or white sheets, to make them easier to find. With the Houston Astrodome already full of evacuees, other groups of New Orleans survivors flew to places such as Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

In a sign of the chaos that has gripped New Orleans since levees failed and the city flooded, police said they shot and killed at least five people Sunday, opening fire after gunmen shot at a group of contractors crossing a bridge to make repairs.

At the time, the contractors were crossing the Danziger Bridge under police escort, and planning to launch barges into Lake Pontchartrain to help plug the breach in the 17th Street Canal. None of the contractors were killed.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told Knight Ridder on Sunday he intends to remove all police from the city by Tuesday, so they can be replaced by National Guard troops and state law enforcement officers, and sent to Baton Rouge, La., for evaluation and counseling. He noted two officers recently had committed suicide.

The numbers of the dead and the living are hard to come by in the city. But a St. Petersburg Times reporter and photographer joined a rescue ship's journey on Sunday that showed the extent of the task ahead.

Survivors were everywhere. The homeless man outside a middle school. The mother and daughter on their porch stoop. The vagrant wandering aimlessly through stinking, waist-deep water. The man with the gaunt face, just standing there, lost. The boy with his dog. Almost all of them black and poor.

"Behind those closed doors, there's all kinds of folks," said Max Miller of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the man in charge of the search group in the purple tour boat.

As those rescuers worked to empty the city so engineers could pump it dry, politicians and regular folks continued their criticism of the slow federal response to the disaster. Some said the government was slow because many victims are black.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who worshiped in a church in her native Alabama, strongly disagreed. "How can that be the case? Americans don't want to see Americans suffer," Rice said.

President Bush will have a chance to hear the criticism firsthand when he returns today for a second trip to the region.

The grim process of measuring the tragedy took a step forward Sunday when Louisiana's emergency medical director gave his first official count of the dead: 59 so far. But he quickly warned that the count will spiral higher as workers collect more bodies.

Although local officials have predicted a huge death toll, Sunday was the first time a key federal figure agreed. "I think it's evident it's in the thousands," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said on CNN.

"I think we need to prepare the country for what's coming," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Fox News Sunday. "It is going to be about as ugly of a scene as I think you can imagine."

As to survivors who don't want to evacuate, "That is not a reasonable alternative," Chertoff said. Although Chertoff has said the government did not expect the levee breaches that flooded New Orleans a day after the Katrina hit, such disastrous scenarios were long forecast, including in a series by the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2002. National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield weighed in Sunday, saying the notification was clear.

"We were briefing them way before landfall," Mayfield said. "It's not like this was a surprise. We had in the advisories that the levee could be topped."

Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, dropped his head and cried on NBC's Meet the Press as he told the harrowing story of a woman trapped in a nursing home who kept calling her son for help. "And he said ... "yeah, Momma ... Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday' - and she drowned Friday night.

"I'm sick of the press conferences," Broussard said. "For God's sakes, shut up and send us somebody."

On the watery streets Sunday, the rescuers in the purple tour boat did their part. They pleaded for people to come with them. They promised food, water, medicine and a deliverance from the misery of flood and fire and death. But many residents just shook their heads and waved the rescuers on.

At one house, the team persuaded 83-year-old Louise Anthony and her grandson, Keith, to leave. They carried the diabetic woman from her home in a kitchen chair, wading through the water and hoisting her onto the boat. She was missing half a foot. Her legs were swollen. But she smiled with relief.

Street after street, they discovered more of the living - one man in a wheelchair, another so thin you could count his ribs, one by one. They picked up a man so excited he babbled unintelligibly.

They picked up 58-year-old Ronald Clark, weary and sweaty after a week of sleeping outside on concrete. He carried with him all his worldly possessions: a few clothes, a Bible, a Saints hat, a picture of his mother.

An hour after the search began, they had gathered eight survivors. That made 42 on four trips, just on Sunday. They coasted slowly through the ghostly streets toward the staging area on Interstate 10. On the way up the ramp, the survivors gazed silently over their drowning neighborhood.

Miller and his crew unloaded the survivors so they could go to ambulances, military helicopters or waiting buses.

On the side of the road, amid all the commotion, the dead lay in green body bags, waiting.

--Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

[Last modified September 5, 2005, 01:21:02]

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