New Orleans Spared the Worst, But Still Reeling

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New Orleans was spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina, but the city is still suffering from extensive wind and flood damage and the streets linking an estimated 80 percent of the metro area are still flooded.


All along the Gulf Coast, officials are really struggling to deal with this situation, often doing it without power or working phone lines or clean water. The state health officer of Mississippi, Dr. Brian Amy, has a seemingly endless list of health concerns for people in that state.

Dr. BRIAN AMY (Mississippi State Health Officer): We're faced with water-borne illnesses, food-borne illnesses, threats like carbon monoxide--people, you know, having, like, generators run and diesel motors run. And of course, you know, the environmental threats of people eating spoiled food, bad water, you know, sewage breakdown and that.

CHADWICK: And there are concerns raised in Louisiana as well. In New Orleans, two large breaches in levees continue to pour water from Lake Pontchartrain into the city. It's just a mess all along there. Lafayette, Louisiana, is--What?--a couple of hundred miles west of New Orleans, about that. NPR's Phillip Davis is there.

Phillip, what are you seeing?

PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:

Well, you know, when Katrina was starting to get close to the edge of New Orleans a couple days ago, we were talking about the doomsday scenario, that if the storm surge was as high as predicted, it might end up flooding the entire city since much of it is under sea level. And yesterday morning when the storm took a quick jog to the east, a lot of people kind of breathed a sigh of relief thinking that New Orleans had dodged the bullet, but now it looks like the doomsday scenario is happening. The mayor, Ray Nagin, says 80 percent of the city is under water right now because of the breaches in the levee protecting the city from Lake Pontchartrain.

CHADWICK: Now that sounds like a complete disaster and worse than we were reporting yesterday. What about the pumps that are supposed to be working to try to clear the city out? Is that working? What is happening there?

DAVIS: There have been malfunctions with the pumps as well, and these pumps are designed to handle maybe two, four inches of a rainfall event. They are rainwater pumps; they are not designed for emergency pumping of an emergency of this magnitude in New Orleans, and the water is rising so fast that at Tulane University Hospital an administrator there said that he could see white caps on Canal Street, the water was rising to fast, and they're desperately trying to move patients to upper floors. And I just heard that reporters and editors at the New Orleans Times-Picayune are evacuating too because the water is rising so quickly. The Coast Guard and New Orleans fire and police officials have rescued hundreds of people stranded on rooftops so far. But there are already reports that people are seeing bodies floating past, and tens of thousands of houses have suffered massive structural damage. So there's bound to be a lot of casualties.

CHADWICK: You're following this by television and by radio reports and news reports of people you're able to call there, but what you're saying is New Orleans is under flood now.

DAVIS: Exactly. Yeah. That's what's happening. The waters are rising right now and they still have not even devised a plan to close the two breaches, and there may be more than two that are letting the waters from the lake get into the city. So it looks like the disaster that people feared might happen yesterday is starting to unfold.

CHADWICK: What about all those people trapped in the Superdome? What are they going to do for them?

DAVIS: That's a really big, big problem. There are approximately 10,000 people in there. There's no power. The air conditioning--well, there is some auxiliary power, but the air conditioning is not working. I'm told the bathrooms are starting to malfunction, that it's really getting filthy in there. People are in bad shape, and they're very desperate to go see their homes. But there's really no way to get around the city right now, and so they're going to have to stay there for the meanwhile.

CHADWICK: How many people are homeless in New Orleans because of the flood?

DAVIS: There is no real good estimates about that right now. Yesterday I saw estimates at 40,000 houses at least were under water. That number is sure to rise right now because of the breaches in the levee, so there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people outside of New Orleans trying to get back into the city, but the highways--especially highway Interstate 10, which connects New Orleans with most of the rest of the South, is still closed, and martial law has been declared in New Orleans, and there are armed National Guard troops patrolling the city not allowing anyone in there right now.

CHADWICK: How can you even get around the city if it's flooded like that? Are people using boats or what's going on? Can you drive?

DAVIS: You cannot drive. People are using boats, but even boats are somewhat dangerous because of the downed power-lines situation. So even if you have access to a boat, you have to be very, very careful about where you're going because if you do hit a downed power line that's in the water you could get shocked that way too. The situation is just a complete mess. I've seen aerial surveillance of people sort of slowly wading through the water to get to buildings that have steps or ramps or higher parking garages to get away from the water. But it's a bad situation right now.

CHADWICK: Are officials giving any kind of estimate for when they think they might at least get things under control and begin trying to reassert some kind of civic authority and repair some of the damages and get things in hand?

DAVIS: Well, the situation is still deteriorating right now, so they have not made any sort of declaration as to when they think people will be able to get back in. Yesterday, when it was thought that the levees were holding, there was some talk that maybe the highways might be opening in the next 48 hours or something like that. Those plans have been put on hold indefinitely.

CHADWICK: I said civic authority. It doesn't sound actually as though there has been any breakdown in civil authority. There are National Guard troops patrolling the streets. But at least there's civil order, whether or not the city's able to function physically.

DAVIS: Yes, it's true. I mean, the chain of command is still operating. There's National Guard; the mayor is still making plans. There have even been some arrests for looting over the last 24 hours, and so it's not like the city is in a lawless state. But Mother Nature is trumping anything that the officials can do, and right now they're just struggling to deal with these breaches in the levees right now.

CHADWICK: NPR's Phillip Davis, speaking with us from Lafayette, Louisiana. That's about 135 miles west of New Orleans. Phillip, thank you, and we'll hear more from you.

DAVIS: Thank you very much.

CHADWICK: And if you are among those affected by the hurricane, we want to hear about your experiences. You'll find a link to e-mail us at npr.org, and you'll also find there the latest information about the storm's impact.

I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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