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Some holdouts heed warnings

As Congress allocates more funds, rescuers try one last time to persuade stragglers to leave New Orleans. Next time, they'll likely use force.

By wire services
Published September 9, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - More stragglers seemed willing to flee the filthy water and stench of death Thursday as increasingly insistent rescuers made what may be their last peaceful pass through swamped New Orleans before using force.

Across a flooded city where as many as 10,000 holdouts were thought to be stubbornly staying put, police made it clear in orders barked from front porches and through closed doors that they would return - next time, getting tough.

Police said they were 80 percent done with their scan of the city for voluntary evacuees, after which they planned to begin carrying out Mayor Ray Nagin's order to forcibly remove remaining residents from a city filled with disease-carrying water, broken gas lines and rotting corpses.

"I know the risks," said Renee de Pontchieux, as she sat on a stool outside Cajun's Pub in the working-class Bywater neighborhood east of downtown. "We used to think we lived in America - now we're not so sure. Why should we allow this government to chase us out and allow people from outside to rebuild our homes? We want to rebuild our homes."

Meanwhile in Washington, Congress - acting with unusual speed - approved an additional $51.8-billion for relief and recovery from Hurricane Katrina on Thursday. President Bush, who signed the funding bill Thursday night, pledged to make it "easy and simple as possible" for uncounted, uprooted storm victims to collect food stamps and other government benefits.

The bill brought the total in disaster aid to $62.3-billion - a total that is certain to rise as the full effect of the storm becomes clear.

The White House said $50-billion of Thursday's $51.8-billion bill would be distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been the subject of widespread criticism in the past week.

The official breakdown said $23.2-billion was for housing aid and grants to individuals, of which about $640-million was for the unprecedented debit cards.

State and local governments are in line for $7.7-billion in reimbursement costs.

Bush on Thursday also dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to the hurricane ravaged region and met with GOP congressional leaders at the White House. He also announced a national day of prayer for Friday of next week. As the vice president toured the ravaged Gulf Coast, Cheney said significant progress has been made but acknowledged immense obstacles remain to a full recovery.

"We can do it," he said, first in Gulfport, Miss., and then in New Orleans, where he stood on a bridge on a levee on the edge of a flooded section of the city.

Back in New Orleans, the near-conclusion of the voluntary evacuation came as receding floodwaters revealed still more rotting corpses. Nagin has said the death toll in New Orleans alone could reach 10,000, and state officials were ordering 25,000 body bags.

Volunteer rescuer Gregg Silverman, part of a 14-boat contingent from Columbus, Ohio, said he expected to find many more survivors in his excursion through the city's flooded streets. Instead, he found mostly bodies.

The Army Corps of Engineers said the city was still about 60 percent flooded - down from as much as 80 percent last week - but was slowly being drained by 37 of the 174 pumps in the Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, and 17 portable pumps. Together, those pumps can move 11,000 cubic feet of water per second, roughly equal to 432 Olympic-sized swimming pools per hour.

Engineers said the undertaking could take months, and could be complicated by corpses getting clogged in the pumps.

"It's got a huge focus of our attention right now," said John Rickey of the Corps. "Those remains are people's loved ones."

In Washington, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency said the decision to pour heavily contaminated floodwaters from New Orleans streets into Lake Pontchartrain could pose future environmental problems.

"We were all faced with a difficult choice," EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said. The other option was to pour the water into the Mississippi River, where it eventually would move into the Gulf of Mexico.

At Louis Armstrong International Airport, now a bustling military encampment, New Orleans' City Council met for the first time since Katrina, with members defending how they handled the disaster and defiantly vowing to rebuild.

"New Orleans has been built back from many disasters," said City Council member Cynthia Hedge Morrell. "New Orleans was here before there was a United States of America."

About 400,000 homes in the city are without power, with no immediate prospect of getting it back. Where water has been restored, it is not drinkable. The city is still dangerous - primarily from the sewage-laden floodwaters, which are believed to contain dangerous germs.

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

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