Katrina floodwater too toxic for contact

New Orleans officials worry about diseases, may force an evacuation

September 08, 2005|By Douglas Birch, Arthur Hirsch and Tom Pelton | Douglas Birch, Arthur Hirsch and Tom Pelton,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - The Environmental Protection Agency confirmed yesterday that standing floodwaters are too toxic to touch, and city officials worried about outbreaks of disease from bacteria and mosquitoes said they were prepared to use force to remove the last holdouts among hurricane survivors.

It was hardly clear yesterday how such a forced evacuation would be carried out, or by whom.

Police Chief Edwin Compass told reporters that rescue crews are still urgently searching for people willing to leave and hope not to have to remove people even with the "minimum amount of force necessary," which he said would be an extreme step.

Rescue teams worked throughout the day in helicopters, boats and street patrols looking for perhaps 10,000 survivors believed still in the city on the 10th day after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. More and more, these sorties were coming back empty.

"There are thousands who want to be evacuated," Compass said. "Once all voluntary evacuations have taken place, then we'll focus our resources on moving people by force."

At least one member of the rescue crew, however, said he had not received orders about a mandatory evacuation.

In Washington and elsewhere, meanwhile, the drumbeat mounted for removing Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who has emerged as a prime target for those criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the disaster.

"Let's bring in someone who is a professional," said U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, on the western outskirts of New Orleans, put it more bluntly: "Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot," he told CBS. "Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot."

Republican leaders of the U.S. House and Senate announced that a joint congressional committee would be empaneled to investigate how local, state and federal governments reacted to the crisis, and would report back no later than Feb. 15.

Recovery efforts were apparent around the city yesterday, from work crews cleaning up debris with bulldozers to glazier's trucks rolling down the street loaded with replacement glass. In 90 degree heat, crews with dogs searched for corpses. In some cases they could not retrieve bodies without heavy equipment.

Firefighters struggled with low water pressure as they continued to fight blazes around New Orleans, sparked in some cases by candles many people are using for lack of electricity.

Workers returning to the city to restart essential services faced another, lingering threat: sniper fire. More than 100 law officers using armored personnel carriers converged on a housing project and captured a person who had been firing on telephone workers, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. 61 and other roads leading into Jefferson Parish were clogged by traffic jams stretching 20 miles or more as residents returned to reclaim their property. A four-day window slams shut at sundown tonight and 500,000 or so residents will be sealed out.

A hobbled public pump system worked around the clock draining flood water from the storm surge and breaks in at least three levees. Water gushed from enormous pipes from the city back into Lake Pontchartrain, just north of the city.

The water at one time was estimated to have flooded about 80 percent of the city. On Tuesday, officials of the Army Corps of Engineers gave what they called a "very crude" estimate, saying they had reduced that amount to about 60 percent.

Army Corps engineer Greg Breerwood said the pump system was working at 10 percent of its capacity, but he declined to estimate how much of the city has been drained.

The central business district and the French Quarter were mostly dry yesterday, while low-lying eastern neighborhoods and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes to the east and south were still flooded. The Corps of Engineers has estimated that it could take a month to drain eastern New Orleans and up to three months to remove all the water from parts of St. Bernard Parish.

The EPA announced yesterday that its first tests on the water in New Orleans confirmed contamination with bacteria from raw sewage at concentrations more than 10 times levels considered safe.

"Our initial findings show that the counts of E-coli and coliform bacteria greatly exceed EPA recommendations for human contact," said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson during a news conference yesterday. "Contact with the flood waters should be avoided as much as possible."

The waters, which inundated the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina, also carry lead and oil that would be harmful to people who might drink it, federal health officials said.

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