Operation Relief

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 3 2005 7:36 AM

Operation Relief

Everybody leads with the relief efforts in New Orleans, where the National Guard arrived on Friday to continue the evacuation of the tens of thousands of people still left in the city five days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. The troops tried to bring some order to the largely lawless city and brought food and water, focusing relief efforts on the Superdome and the convention center, where victims of the hurricane have been holed up in squalid conditions. This arrival coincided with President Bush's tour of some devastated areas of New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss. where he pledged that the federal government would step up relief efforts and Congress passed a bill pledging $10.5 billion in aid. Before leaving Washington, Bush admitted the results of the federal response "are not acceptable." Members of Congress, along with local government officials, from both sides of the aisle extensively criticized Bush and the federal government in general for the delay in aiding the victims of the hurricane. (The roundup of Slate'sHurricane Katrina stories is available here).

All the papers focus on the chaos still reigning in New Orleans. The city's airport quickly became, as the New York Times describes it, "the world's largest emergency room," because the sick and dying from across the city were taken there while waiting for evacuations. In the midst of people in critical condition spread out across the airport in stretchers and wheelchairs were several who died before they could reach help. Those who did manage to get on planes frequently had no idea where they were being taken.

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The Washington Post notes that while buses took refugees out of the Superdome and from around the convention center, officials dealing with the evacuation had to keep an eye out for snipers. Groups of armed civilians were still roaming around New Orleans and, according to the Los Angeles Times, they shot at firefighters trying to put out fires that had broken out throughout the city on Friday. The NYT mentions that New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin attributed most of the violence to drug addicts who have been unable to get their regular fix.

The AP reported early this morning that the evacuation of the Superdome has been put on pause because the buses "stopped rolling." The 2,000 people that remain could be there until Sunday.

Relief was finally able to reach the convention center, a place packed with almost as many refugees as the Superdome but of which rescue officials didn't even seem to be aware until Wednesday, according to an official quoted in the WP (the NYT says Thursday). Earlier, police officers who had tried to take control over the convention center were pushed back by armed thugs. The LAT fronts an article on the Special Response Team of the Louisiana National Guard that was fully armed, expecting to meet resistance as they attempted to take over the convention center, but instead simply found desperate people. Evacuees said the center had been taken over by thugs who terrorized those inside and there were reports of rape as well as dead bodies scattered across the floor. According to the NYT, these armed thugs preyed upon the tourists, many of whom went to the convention center when their hotels flooded. The NYT also reports that amid the squalor of the convention center there were some lawyers walking around signing people up for what they said would be a class-action lawsuit.

The LAT says New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin hopes to have evacuated everyone out of the city in five days. Less clear is where all these people are going. The initial plan was to take everyone who was in the Superdome to Houston's Astrodome, but that was declared full after 15,000 people arrived and now refugees are being taken to surrounding facilities. The WP points out that Texas has become the primary destination for evacuees and in the last two days Houston has "come to resemble a huge refugee camp." To put it all in perspective, the NYT points out that this appears to be the largest mass relocation of Americans since the Civil War.

As the WP notes (perhaps unnecessarily?), the death toll caused by the storm is still not known, and is likely rising. New Orleans' WWLTV's blog says Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour raised the state's death toll to 147.

All the papers mention Nagin's impassioned interview with a local radio station before the National Guard arrived, where he criticized the federal government and yelled at officials to "get off your asses and do something" (the NYT posted the transcript and audio of the interview). Although none may have said it quite as emotionally, criticism of the administration's response was widespread. The WP says that the hurricane, which "started out as a humanitarian crisis has rapidly spawned a political crisis for the president." Congressional hearings were scheduled to look into the failures of the relief efforts as criticism came from a wide variety of people ranging from former President Bill Clinton to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, to name a few. The LAT points out some members of Congress have called for FEMA to be separated from the Department of Homeland Security. The Times-Picayune reports that Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu called on Bush to appoint a cabinet-level official to take over the emergency operations. The LAT fronts a story on how around the world, people seem to be as surprised as Americans that something of this nature could happen to the world's superpower.

The WP illustrates at least part of the failure by going inside with a story on Washington-area groups who wanted to send people to help out with disaster relief but were hampered by communication problems. For example, a group of doctors from Prince William County who have experience dealing with violent crisis situations was ready to send a team on Wednesday but they couldn't get an answer from either federal officials or the Red Cross.

And more doctors could have been useful in the last few days, as becomes clear from the stories about the dire conditions in the hospitals of New Orleans, most of which are now evacuated. There are reports of overworked and dehydrated nurses and doctors keeping each other alive with intravenous fluids. In the end, the NYT reports, many hospitals had to evacuate by hiring private companies since help was not arriving from the government and people were dying. The NYT also says there are increasing worries that nursing homes that have been forgotten about may turn out to have many dead people who could not evacuate or call out for help. The WP reports that rescue workers have already reached some nursing homes where everyone inside was dead.

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