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New Orleans Stays in Search-and-Rescue Mode


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

In New Orleans, officials and residents are hoping today might bring some good news. The full wrath of Hurricane Katrina was becoming apparent yesterday as flood waters continued to rise in some neighborhoods of the Crescent City. Officials there urged those who had stayed in the city during the storm to evacuate now. At the same time, federal and state officials are working to identify the places where water is coming into the city and to stop it as quickly as possible. From New Orleans, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Yesterday neighborhoods that had weathered Hurricane Katrina on Monday became flooded as water poured into the city from holes in two important levees. At the BW Cooper Homes, a housing project not far from downtown, residents saw water start filling their streets Monday night after the hurricane passed. It flooded people out of their first-floor apartments and many, like Aubrey Watson(ph), finally decided it was time to leave.

Unidentified Woman: Let's go!

(Soundbite of evacuation)

Mr. AUBREY WATSON (Resident): Yes, we going to leave.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

ALLEN: What's your plan?

Mr. WATSON: Go to Baton Rouge or go to Texas. We're trying to take the interstate--the Crescent City, you know, take--cross the river and shoot out, like, go through them different parishes. If they let us go through that, we'll be home before that. But we're trying to get out. We're going to get out.

ALLEN: It became clear that getting out of the city was in itself an adventure. Roads are covered with tree limbs, debris and deep water, making many vital exit routes impassable. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Causeway Bridge and the twin-bridge span on Interstate 10 East, leaving just one way out of the city.

But for emergency crews throughout the area the main priority remains search and rescue. In Jefferson parish, officials put out a call for flat-bottom boats to rescue those trapped on their second floors, in attics and on roofs. In New Orleans even more people were brought to the Superdome where thousands are already housed in conditions that are far from ideal. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco acknowledged yesterday that the football stadium could not serve as a shelter indefinitely and that soon those being sheltered there will have to be moved.

Governor KATHLEEN BLANCO (Louisiana): It's not a very comfortable situation right now. You can imagine. There's no power. It's hot, you know, difficult to get through to them. There's water lapping at the foot of the Superdome now. I think I saw people walking in it about knee deep as they were trying to get into the Superdome from the ground floor. And that is definitely going to be phased in as we go through these next few hours and days.

ALLEN: While emergency crews focused on rescuing those trapped in their homes, elsewhere in the city looting broke out. Drugstores and grocery stores were the first targets and looters could be seen carrying everything from baby diapers to cases of beer.

Along with search and rescue, city officials focused on their other big challenge: finding the sources of water into the city and stopping them. During a flyover of the area yesterday, officials said they saw three breaches in the levees. The largest one is some 300 feet long. One plan under consideration by the Army Corps of Engineers is to drop cargo containers full of sand to plug the breach.

As bad as things are here in New Orleans, in the parishes south and east of the city conditions are even worse. Thousands of homes were flooded in St. Bernard parish, and much of Plaquemines parish down on the Gulf has been literally washed away. Yesterday, state police sent trucks to rural Plaquemines parish to bring officials to New Orleans to coordinate rescue efforts. Parish president Benny Rousselle said the Gulf of Mexico had apparently moved 40 miles inland. Sheriff Jiff Hingle said recovering from Hurricane Katrina may take a year or longer.

Sheriff JIFF HINGLE: Well, you know, this is something that we've always worried about and talked about and you never hope that you have to experience. We've been through storms. This is just a truly devastating one. I've got deputies that have lost family members they think. You know, they haven't been able to get in touch them on the east bank. You know, and we're trying to console them. But you've got to continue on. Life has to continue.

(Soundbite of muffled talking in the background)

Sheriff HINGLE: You know, New Orleans has taken a tremendous hit and Jefferson and, evidently, St. Bernard. But we're all going to come back. We're not going to leave this area.

ALLEN: One heartening note for people in New Orleans is that help is on the way. Louisiana Governor Blanco flew over the area with Federal Emergency Management head Mike Brown. FEMA is flying in emergency supplies and is scouting locations where it can set up temporary shelters like trailers and floating dormitories. And the Red Cross says it's mounting its largest relief effort ever following a natural disaster. Blanco says Katrina is the worst natural disaster the state has ever faced and one that will test Louisianans' resolve.

Gov. BLANCO: I just think our people are going to have to draw on their inner strength like we've never ever had to do before. It's going to be, in some neighborhoods, total rebuilding. Many buildings are totally devastated and down. Some are in shards. The highway, the I-10 span, between New Orleans and Slidell, has many sections of it out.

ALLEN: Rebuilding, though, is still very far away. The first challenge is to safeguard those still at risk and to begin getting the water out of the city. Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.