New Orleans' Nightmare

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 1 2005 6:25 AM

New Orleans' Nightmare

Everybody leads with the increasingly apocalyptic situation in New Orleans, where food, water, and social order are all dwindling. The mayor ordered nearly all police to stop search-and-rescue efforts and move to the city center to combat massive looting. No one knows how many people are left in the city—officials guessed between 50,000 and 100,000—but whoever is still there has to leave, said the mayor: "The city will not be functional for two or three months."

That time frame, of course, is just a guess, and it may be optimistic. The local head of the Army Corps of Engineers told the Los Angeles Timesthat clearing the city of water will take three to six months—and that's assuming good weather. The official said some parts of New Orleans are under 30 feet of water. "The news cameras do not do it justice," he said. "And I'm worried the worst is yet to come."

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On what may be the other hand, the Times–Picayune, which abandoned its offices but is publishing online, says floodwaters appear to have gone down just a bit overnight.

Asked by a reporter to clarify the number of deaths in New Orleans, the mayor said, "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands." Many of the papers play that up, USA Todaymost prominently with the LAT and New York Timesnot far behind. That seems unwise. The mayor may well be right—common-sense suggests he is—but as the mayor himself intimated, he was just guesstimating. Even he doesn't know if he's right. The Washington Postis more careful, noting that other officials "urged caution in attempting to estimate the number killed."

That's actually suggestive of a larger problem: The papers are playing up officials' assessments as if the authorities are as informed as usual—a kind of authority fetish. The problem is that officials aren't that informed; they can barely keep in touch with each other. As the LAT mentions in passing, Louisiana's governor couldn't get Army and other officials on the phone. The NYT seems to have a particularly strong faith in the oraclelike abilities of officialdom, announcing across the top on Page One: "BUSH SEES LONG RECOVERY FOR NEW ORLEANS." Does that tell us a damn thing?

Everybody notes the beginning of the evacuation of the Superdome, where an estimated 25,000 people are waiting to be bused to Houston's mothballed Astrodome. The NYT dubs New Orleans' stadium a "surreal vault of horrors." "It's worse than a prison," said one resident. "Here you get no water, no toilets, no lights." There were also reports of a shooting and rapes. (Most of the papers play the rapes as rumor, but the NYT seems to quote a witness). 

The situation was also desperate at hospitals, where 2,500 critically ill patients are waiting to be evacuated. "We have no power, no water, no toilets, and we don't have fuel to operate our generators," said a hospital administrator. The LAT mentions that at one hospital, armed looters forced doctors to give up narcotics.

Some looters were roaming around town in a forklift. In the few dry spots, there were carjackings by men wielding machetes. One resident told USAT of a message spray-painted in front of a store: "Don't try. I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer."

Authorities tried and failed to close the biggest levee breach. Apparently, the Army Corps of Engineers considered one solution yesterday then changed tacks, leaving no progress for now and local officials enraged. The Wall Street Journal says the Corps "lacked critical equipment." The Journal adds that poor planning and preparation have been an all-around problem, with guidelines for federal-local coordination "incomplete."

Slate's Jack Shafer points out what the papers have been hesistant to: Most of those left in New Orleans are black and poor.

Mississippi's Harrison County is still getting little help but doesn't seem to be as uniformly chaotic as New Orleans. The LAT says looters "swarmed" through stores in Gulfport. But the Post, citing officials,says overall the filching has not been "widespread." Some smaller towns have yet to be seen by rescuers. "We know there are people in other parts of the county who are alive and could be rescued and have not been," said one official.

Gas futures picked up again yesterday, while the NYT plays up sporadic reports of long lines for gas around the country. "I hate to be an alarmist," said one analyst. "But we're in a situation without much precedent." It's not just about oil. The Gulf Coast is one of the U.S.'s biggest transport hubs. As the Post emphasizes, there have been price spikes in the futures market for everything from lumber to coffee.

President Bush announced he will release some crude from the Strategic Oil Reserve. But, as TP suggested might happen, the markets yawned. As the NYT puts it, "[T]he problem is not any immediate shortage of crude oil," it's the lack of refining power, which USAT warns is not limited to gasoline. Jet fuel is also made in the currently out-of-commission refineries. If they're not back online in a week or two, the airports in Atlanta, D.C., and elsewhere might run out of fuel

The NYT goes heavy with all the help the feds have ponied up, including sending 30,000 reservists. But the LAT mentions this: "The Navy hospital ship Comfort sailed from Baltimore Wednesday headed to New Orleans, but is not expected to arrive for seven days." Could the Comfort and other resources have been prepositioned?

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