New Orleans evacuation gains pace

Planes, trains and buses have delivered refugees to safety as the evacuation of New Orleans appeared to pick up steam and the city’s mayor warned that time to help had run out.

An evacuee shelters at Houston's Astrodome on Saturday
An evacuee shelters at Houston's Astrodome on Saturday

President George Bush ordered the deployment of 7200 troops on Saturday to help desperate survivors of Hurricane Katrina as he acknowledged the relief and rescue effort had fallen short.

“Many of our citizens are simply not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans, and that is unacceptable,” Bush said in a live address in the White House Rose Garden.

Bush will return to Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday, a week after Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast.

Bush, who rarely concedes errors, spoke a day after touring the destruction amid withering criticism of the federal response.


By early Saturday morning, buses had evacuated most people from the frightening confines of the Superdome.

At the equally squalid convention centre, thousands of people began pushing and dragging their belongings up the street to more than a dozen air-conditioned buses, the mood more numb than jubilant.

As New Orleans will remain flooded for at least the next 80 days, the majority of the city’s buildings, including schools, factories and houses, will be demolished, reported Muhammad al-Alami, Aljazeera’s correspondent in the United States. 

A baggage conveyor at New Orleans airport moves survivors

A baggage conveyor at New
Orleans airport moves survivors

More than 50,000 people had been trapped for days at the two filthy, sweltering buildings, suffering from a lack of food, water or medical attention. Help came too late for a number of them – bodies were a common sight, in wheelchairs, wrapped in blankets or abandoned.

Thousands of people were at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where fewer than 200 remained in a medical triage unit where officials said 3000 to 5000 people had been treated since the beginning of the storm.

“The hallways are filled, the floors are filled. There are thousands of people there,” said US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who was at the airport. “A lot more than eight to 10 people are dying a day. It’s a distribution problem. The doctors are doing a great job, the nurses are doing a great job.”

Since Friday, more than 25,000 residents have been evacuated, Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said at a briefing on Saturday morning in Baton Rouge.

Many residents of the afflicted areas are being transferred to nearby states, particularly Texas, Aljazeera’s al-Alami reported.

The number of people left in the city and the toll remained unknown, because people continued showing up at evacuation sites, and bodies were still being counted, Brown said.

“There are people in apartments and hotels that you didn’t know were there,” Army Brigadier General Mark Graham said at the briefing.

Waiting for five days

At the convention centre, Yolanda Sanders stood at a barricade clutching her cocker spaniel, Toto. She had been waiting to be evacuated for five days.

President George Bush signs a $10.5 billion bill for storm relief

President George Bush signs a
$10.5 billion bill for storm relief

“I had faith that they’d come. I feel good that I know I can get to my family,” she said. Sanders did not know yet where they were taking her, but “anyplace is better than here. People are dying over there”.

Refugees filed past corpses to get to the buses and left rubbish bags and suitcases full of belongings at the side of the road because there was no room. National Guardsmen confiscated knives and letter openers from people before they got on the buses.

At the south end of the convention centre, hundreds of people stumbled towards helicopters, dehydrated and exhausted. Many had to be carried by National Guard troops and police on stretchers. Some were being pushed up the street on office chairs and on dollies.

A Saks Fifth Avenue store billowed smoke on Saturday, as did rows of warehouses on the east bank of the Mississippi River, where corrugated roofs buckled and tiny explosions erupted. Gunfire – almost two dozen shots – broke out in the French Quarter overnight.

Violent deaths

Hope was overtaken by frustration as people continued to wait. A dead man lay on a pavement under a blanket with a stream of blood running down the pavement towards the gutter. People said he died violently.

“We’re hurting out here, man. We got to get help. All we want is someone to feel our pain, that’s all,” said Tasheka Johnson, 24.

Police patrol outside the New Orleans Convention Centre

Police patrol outside the New
Orleans Convention Centre

About a dozen people who headed down the street to look for food and water said they were turned back by a soldier who pulled a gun.

“We had to get something to eat. What are they doing pulling a gun?” said Richard Johnson, 28.

The soldiers’ arrival came amid angry complaints from local officials that the federal government had bungled the relief effort and let people die in the streets for lack of food, water or medicine as the city was overtaken by looting, rape and arson.

“The people of our city are holding on by a thread,” Mayor Ray Nagin said in a statement to CNN. “Time has run out. Can we survive another night? And who can we depend on? Only God knows.”

‘Not enough’

President George Bush took a land and air tour of hard-hit areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Friday, and admitted of the relief effort: “The results are not enough.”

Congress passed a $10.5 billion disaster aid package, and Bush quickly signed the measure.

Governor Kathleen Blanco said the military presence helped calm a jittery city.

“We are seeing a show of force. It’s putting confidence back in our hearts and in the minds of our people,” Blanco said. “We’re going to make it through.”

Guard members carrying rifles also arrived at the Louisiana Superdome, where bedraggled people – many of them trapped there since the weekend – stretched around the perimeter of the building. Lieutenant General Steven Blum, commander of the National Guard, said 7000 Guard members would be in the city by Saturday.

All the victims in the Superdome were supposed to have been evacuated by dawn on Saturday, but shortly after midnight, the buses stopped rolling. Between 2000 and 5000 people still in the stadium could be there until Sunday, according to the Texas Air National Guard.

With Houston’s Astrodome already full with 15,000 storm refugees, that city opened two more centres to accommodate an additional 10,000. Dallas and San Antonio also had agreed to take refugees.

One group of Katrina’s victims lurched from one tragedy to another: A bus carrying evacuees from the Superdome overturned on a Louisiana highway, killing at least one person and injuring many others.

At the broken levee along Lake Pontchartrain that swamped nearly 80% of New Orleans, helicopters dropped 1350kg sandbags into the breach, and pilings were being pounded into place to seal off the waters.

Engineers were developing a plan to create new breaches in the levees so that a combination of gravity and pumping would drain the water out of the city, a process that could take weeks.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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