NEW ORLEANS — Rescuers along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast pushed aside the dead to reach the living Tuesday in a race against time and rising waters, while New Orleans sank deeper into crisis and Louisiana’s governor ordered storm refugees out of the drowning city.
Two levees broke and sent water coursing into the streets of the Big Easy a full day after New Orleans appeared to have escaped widespread destruction from Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 80 percent of the below-sea-level city was under water, up to 20 feet deep in places, with miles and miles of homes swamped.
“The situation is untenable,” Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. “It’s just heartbreaking.
One Mississippi county alone said its death toll was at least 100, and officials are “very, very worried that this is going to go a lot higher,” said Joe Spraggins, civil defense director for Harrison County, home to Biloxi and Gulfport.
Several victims in the county were from a beachfront apartment building that collapsed under a 25-foot wall of water as Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast with 145-mph winds. And Louisiana officials said many were feared dead there, too, making Katrina one of the most punishing storms to hit the United States in decades. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said hundreds, if not thousands, of people may still be stuck on roofs and in attics, and so rescue boats were bypassing the dead.
“We’re not even dealing with dead bodies,” Nagin said. “They’re just pushing them on the side.”
The flooding in New Orleans grew worse by the minute, prompting the evacuation of hotels and hospitals and an audacious plan to drop huge sandbags from helicopters to close up one of the breached levees. At the same time, looting broke out in some neighborhoods, the sweltering city of 480,000 had no drinkable water, and the electricity could be out for weeks.
With water rising perilously inside the Superdome, Blanco said the tens of thousands of refugees now huddled there and other shelters in New Orleans would have to be evacuated.
A helicopter view of the devastation over the New Orleans area revealed people standing on black rooftops baking in the sunshine while waiting for rescue boats. A row of desperately needed ambulances were lined up on the interstate, water blocking their path. Roller coasters jutted out from the water at a Six Flags amusement park.
All day long, rescuers in boats and helicopters pulled out shellshocked and bedraggled flood refugees from rooftops and attics. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu said that 3,000 people have been rescued by boat and air, some placed shivering and wet into helicopter baskets. “Oh my God, it was hell,” said Kioka Williams, who had to hack through the ceiling of the beauty shop where she worked as floodwaters rose in New Orleans’ low-lying Ninth Ward. “We were screaming, hollering, flashing lights. It was complete chaos.”
Across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, more than 1 million residents remained without electricity, some without clean drinking water. An untold number who heeded evacuation orders were displaced, and 40,000 were in Red Cross shelters, with officials saying it could be weeks, if not months, before most will be able to return.
Mike Brown, Federal Emergency Management Agency director, warned that structural damage to homes, diseases from animal carcasses and chemicals in floodwaters made it unsafe for residents to come home anytime soon. And a mass return also was discouraged to keep from interfering with rescue and recovery efforts.
That was made tough enough by the vast expanse of floodwaters in coastal areas that took an eight-hour pounding from Katrina’s howling winds and up to 15 inches of rainfall. From the air, neighborhood after neighborhood looked like nothing but islands of rooftops surrounded by swirling, tea-colored water.
Looting became a problem in both Biloxi and in New Orleans, in some cases in full view of police and National Guardsmen. One police officer was shot in the head by a looter in New Orleans, but was expected to recover, Sgt. Paul Accardo, a police spokesman.
On New Orleans’ Canal Street, which actually resembled a canal, dozens of looters ripped open the steel gates on clothing and jewelry stores, some packing plastic garbage cans with loot to float down the street.
Insurance experts estimated the storm will result in up to $25 billion in insured losses. That means Katrina could prove more costly than record-setting Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which caused an inflation-adjusted $21 billion in losses.
Oil prices jumped by more than $3 a barrel on Tuesday, climbing above $70 a barrel, amid uncertainty about the extent of the damage to the Gulf region’s refineries and drilling platforms.
By midday Tuesday, Katrina was downgraded to a tropical depression, with winds around 35 mph. It was moving northeast through Tennessee at around 21 mph, with the potential to dump 8 inches of rain and spin off deadly tornadoes.