setembro 01, 2005

KATRINA / Local Officials Criticize Federal Government Over Response

The New York Times

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 1 - Despair, privation and violent lawlessness grew so extreme in New Orleans on Thursday that the flooded city's mayor issued a "desperate S O S" and other local officials, describing the security situation as horrific, lambasted the federal government as responding too slowly to the disaster.

Thousands of refugees from Hurricane Katrina boarded buses for Houston, but others quickly took their places at the filthy, teeming Superdome, which has been serving as the primary shelter. At the increasingly unsanitary convention center, crowds swelled to about 25,000 and desperate refugees clamored for food, water and attention while dead bodies, slumped in wheelchairs or wrapped in sheets, lay in their midst.

"Some people there have not eaten or drunk water for three or four days, which is inexcusable," acknowledged Joseph W. Matthews, the director of the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness.

"We need additional troops, food, water," Mr. Matthews begged, "and we need personnel, law enforcement. This has turned into a situation where the city is being run by thugs."

Three days after the hurricane hit, bringing widespread destruction to the Gulf Coast and ruinous floods to low-lying New Orleans, the White House said President Bush would tour the region on Friday. Citing the magnitude of the disaster, federal officials defended their response so far and pledged that more help was coming. The Army Corps of Engineers continued work to close a levee breach that allowed water from Lake Pontchartrain to pour into New Orleans.

The effects of the disaster spilled out over the country. In Houston, the city began to grapple with the logistics of taking tens of thousands of refugees into the Astrodome, and San Antonio and Dallas each braced for the arrival of 25,000 more. Baton Rouge overnight replaced New Orleans as the most populous city in Louisiana and was bursting at the seams.

The devastation in the Gulf Coast also continued to roil oil markets, sending gasoline prices soaring in many areas of the country. In North Carolina, Gov. Michael F. Easley called on citizens to conserve fuel while two big pipelines that supply most of the state's gasoline are brought back on line. "Citizens should not panic," Mr. Easley said. "But it is critical that we continue to conserve our fuel while Washington is developing a national strategy for this problem."

Throughout the stricken region, scores of frantic people, without telephone service, asked for help contacting friends or relatives whose fates they did not know. Some ended up finding them dead. Others had emotional reunions. Newspapers offered toll-free numbers or Web message boards for the searches.

Meanwhile, the situation in New Orleans continued to deteriorate. Angry crowds chanted for help, while some rushed chaotically at helicopters trying to bring in food. Although Mayor C. Ray Nagin speculated that thousands of people might have died, officials still had no clear idea of the scope of the toll.

"We're just a bunch of rats," said Earle Young, 31, a cook who stood waiting in a throng of perhaps 10,000 outside the Superdome, waiting in the blazing sun for buses to take them away from the city. "That's how they've been treating us."

Chaos and gunfire hampered efforts to evacuate the Superdome, and, the New Orleans police superintendent said, armed thugs have taken control of the secondary makeshift shelter at the convention center. The thugs repelled eight squads of 11 officers each that he sent to secure the place, the superintendent, P. Edwin Compass III, said, adding that rapes and assaults were occurring unimpeded in the neighboring streets as criminals "preyed upon" passers-by, including stranded tourists.

Mr. Compass said that the federal government had taken too long to send in the thousands of troops - as well as the supplies, fuel, vehicles, water and food - needed to stabilize his now "very, very tenuous" city.

Col. Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for New Orleans, concurred, and he was particularly pungent in his criticism. Asserting that the whole recovery operation had been "carried on the backs of the little guys for four goddamn days," he said that "the rest of the goddamn nation can't get us any resources for security."

"We are like little birds with our mouths open, and you don't have to be very smart to know where to drop the worm," Colonel Ebbert said. "It's criminal within the confines of the United States that within one hour of the hurricane they weren't force-feeding us. It's like FEMA has never been to a hurricane." FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Federal officials took pains to defend their efforts, maintaining that supplies were pouring into the area even before the hurricane struck, that thousands of National Guard members had arrived to help secure the city and that thousands more would join them in coming days.

Speaking at a news conference in Washington, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, said that the Superdome had "crowd control issues" but that it was secure. He referred to what he called "isolated incidents of criminality" in the city.

Even as administration officials pledged vast resources to the region, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, told a local newspaper, The Daily Herald, that he was skeptical about using billions in federal money to rebuild New Orleans, given its vulnerability.

"It doesn't make sense to me," Mr. Hastert said. "And it's a question that certainly we should ask."

Mr. Hastert later sought to clarify his comments, saying in a statement: "I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated. My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens."

On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers was battling the water problem by finishing a metal wall across the mouth of the 17th Street Canal, the source of most of the flooding. Once finished, the wall was expected to staunch the flow from Lake Pontchartrain into the canal, which would allow the engineers to repair a breach in the levee and to start pumping fetid water from the city.

The federal government's other priority was to evacuate New Orleans, Mr. Chertoff said. To that end, some 200 buses had left the Superdome for the Astrodome in Houston by midday, he said, adding that another 200 buses were expected to start loading passengers later Thursday and that Louisiana was providing an additional 500 school buses.

On the receiving end in Houston, though, the Astrodome looked at times like a squatters' camp in a war-torn country. The refugees from Louisiana, many dirty and hungry, wandered about aimlessly, checking bulletin boards for information about their relatives, queuing up for supplies and pay phones, mobbing Red Cross volunteers to obtain free T-shirts. Many found some conditions similar to those that they left behind at the Superdome, like clogged toilets and foul restrooms.

But in Houston, there were hot showers, crates of Bibles and stacks of pizzas, while in New Orleans, many refugees scrounged for diapers, water and basic survival.

Thousands of evacuees, plucked from their roofs in New Orleans by rescuers, were deposited in a field in Jefferson Parrish, Sheriff Harry Lee, said. Sheriff Lee said that he had received no warning that the refugees would be arriving, and that they had been left without food, water or toilets.

The sheriff said that he was moving to evacuate the refugees from his parish but that he had surrounded them with law enforcement officials while the evacuation was being organized. "We've virtually made them prisoners," he said.

One reason is that armed looting has extended to Jefferson Parish, which abuts New Orleans. Looters set a shopping center ablaze, and firefighters, facing guns, abandoned their efforts to extinguish the fire, local radio reports said.

The White House said Thursday that it would ask Congress for $10.5 billion to pay for rescue and aid efforts for the next few weeks. Senate leaders were expected to convene Thursday night for a special session to pass a supplemental appropriations bill, and House leaders intended to hold a special session Friday to approve the measure.

Joseph B. Treaster reported from New Orleans, and Deborah Sontag from New York. Felicity Barringer contributed reporting from Metairie, La.; Christine Hauser from New York; and Simon Romero from Houston.