Everybody leads with the chaos in New Orleans, where at least tens of thousands of residents are stranded. With the mayor issuing a “desperate SOS,” thousands of people without food and water milled around outside the convention center—where refugees are now being sent instead of the Superdome. The police chief said “armed thugs” have taken control of a shelter near the city center. “We have individuals who are getting raped,” the chief told reporters. “We have individuals who are getting beaten.” One sniper was shooting at police and others and prevented the evacuation of a hospital. (According to early-morning reports, there was a “large explosion” somewhere in the city, possibly from a railcar.)
City officials ripped the feds. “This is a national disgrace,” said the head of emergency operations. “FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control.” Another official begged, “We need personnel, law enforcement. This has turned into a situation where the city is being run by thugs.”
Helicopters tried to land near the city center but were bum-rushed by a crowd and just pushed out supplies while hovering. The papers mention reports of helicopters being fired on, and the Los Angeles Times quotes witnesses. But the FAA says it keeps track of such things and hasn’t received any reports like that.
A squad of nearly 100 officers tried to make it to the convention center but couldn’t get through, either because of the commotion (LAT) or because they were turned back by armed thugs ( New York Times). The NYT mentions that everyone in the Superdome was ordered outside after a small fire. Meanwhile, Houston’s Astrodome has taken in 11,000 refugees and was deemed full. (It had been projected to house 25,000 people.)
The NYT mentions an open field just a bit north of the city center where a few thousand refugees have been dropped off and also now have “no food, water, sanitation or any sense of where they were headed next.” The Washington Posttalks to Coast Guard pilots who describe large numbers of people still stuck on roofs.
One U.S. congressman told the Times-Picayune that about 100 people died at a slip outside New Orleans after having been rescued from rooftops. Reportedly, 1,500 people have been stuck at the slip without food or water.
New Orleans’ WWLTV interviewed the head of Louisiana’s police, who acknowledged that “some” city cops have turned in their badges: “They indicated that they had lost everything and didn’t feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives.” (This morning, CNN is reporting that in “some” precincts “20 percent or more” of police are AWOL.)
Most of the papers report on Charity Hospital, where doctors contacted the Associated Press saying they’re nearly out of food and are being threatened by looters. “We have been trying to call the mayor’s office, we have been trying to call the governor’s office … we have tried to use any inside pressure we can. We are turning to you. Please help us.” Charity is a public hospital. The private hospital across the street has been evacuated.
Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff talked to NPR about “isolated incidents” of crime. He also said he hadn’t heard anything about the situation at the convention center. The WP’s Dana Milbank notices that the White House deflected all Katrina questions and instead offered up Chertoff.
Pleas for help from people with family in New Orleans are being posted on a section of the Times-Picayune Web site. They include addresses, telephone numbers, and have headlines like, “Brother trapped in Algiers by armed mob” and “HELP! Parents dying at home in French Quarter!!!” (I hope authorities are aware of the page.)
There were a few glimmers of hope. Buses were trickling in—with armed guards. And the Times-Picayune says that while the city “retained its apocalyptic feel … neighborhoods that had been populated by bands of wanderers and armed thieves looked nearly empty, save for police patrols that were non-existent a day earlier.”
The Post also finds progress on closing the biggest breach in the levees. While the Army Corps of Engineers fretted about how to plug it, a “local contractor, Boh Bros. Construction Co., apparently drove to the mouth of the canal” and just started to plug it. They plan to finish today. Plus, it turns out some of the city’s pumps are still working. The Post says that as of yesterday afternoon, about half the city was “dry.”
With the drama in New Orleans, the Mississippi coast is getting short shrift. Though there were not reports of massive violence, the Journal and Post both say the unrest appears to be spreading across the region. Gov. Haley Barbour told MSNBC that along a 50-mile stretch of coastline, “90 percent of the structures are destroyed.” Only the NYT fronts Mississippi—a smart piece that emphasizes the breakdown in communications and the costs of ensuing rumors. The LAT mentions that damage in Mississippi extends farther than thought; roofs were lost 100 miles inland.
Everybody questions the feds’ response, with the NYT offering a few bits of defense. About 10,000 National Guard troops were mobilized before the storm hit the coast, but they couldn’t go anywhere. “How many people can you put through that funnel that a storm has taken four lane highways and turned them into goat trails?” asked a Guard commander. Late last night, the Senate approved $10.5 billion in aid; the House is expected to send the bill to the president today.
The Journal notes that the Navy’s big hospital ship was only activated Wednesday. (It normally takes five days after activation to set sail.) The Department of Health of Human Services has set up one of its 40 promised emergency aid stations; the aid station is 80 miles from New Orleans in Baton Rouge. One trucker hired by FEMA to haul supplies said he spent three days waiting in Florida. “I think we should have been here a whole lot sooner,” he told the Journal.
Yesterday, President Bush said, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” The NYT backs him up, “GOVERNMENT SAW FLOOD RISKS, BUT NOT LEVEE FAILURE.” TP isn’t so sure of that. Here, for example, is a story last year from the AP, nabbed from Nexis: “Officials have warned that if a major hurricane hits New Orleans, thousands of people could be killed and the city could be flooded for weeks as flood waters breach the levees ringing the city.”
As USA Todayfronts, prices at the pump are continuing to jump, with lines reported from Denver to Atlanta. “Don’t buy gas if you don’t need it,” said the president, doing his best to calm a jittery public. The shortage isn’t all panic-induced. It’s still early in the assessment process, but the Wall Street Journal says most of the refineries in the region are still shut down, and “several could require a month or more to restart.” The WSJ talks of “early rumblings” of “significant, unreported damage.”
Playing a bit of catch-up, the Post and NYT look at how most of those left behind are, again, poor and black. “No one would have checked on a lot of the black people in these parishes while the sun shined,” said the mayor of one Mississippi town. “So am I surprised that no one has come to help us now? No.”