Mayor Predicts Thousands Dead

After flying a white sheet signaling a rescue, a U.S. Navy crewman prepares to airlift an unidentified person from their flooded apartment near the Interstate 10 overhead on Monday, Sept. 5, 2005. Rescues continued for those who wanted to finally leave their home a week after Hurricane Katrina. (Tom Fox) AP/Dallas Morning News

A week after Hurricane Katrina, engineers plugged the levee break that swamped much of the city and floodwaters began to recede, but along with the good news came the mayor's direst prediction yet: As many as 10,000 dead.

Sheets of metal and repeated helicopter drops of 3,000-pound sandbags along the 17th Street canal leading to Lake Pontchartrain succeeded Monday in plugging a 200-foot-wide gap, and water was being pumped from the canal back into the lake. State officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say once the canal level is drawn down two feet, Pumping Station 6 can begin pumping water out of the bowl-shaped city.

Some parts of the city already showed slipping floodwaters as the repair neared completion, with the low-lying Ninth Ward dropping more than a foot. In downtown New Orleans, some streets were merely wet rather than swamped.

"We're starting to make the kind of progress that I kind of expected earlier," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said the work on the break, which opened at the height of the hurricane and flooded 80 percent of the city up to 20 feet deep.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco is denying that there's a rift between her and President Bush over slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

"We are a team," said Blanco late Monday, referring to the head of FEMA's efforts as "my partner."

"We do feel the power of prayers of millions of people lifting us up," said Blanco. "It gives us the strength, the courage, to feel that all is possible... We will rebuild."

Blanco has refused to sign over National Guard control to the federal government and has turned to a Clinton administration official, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt, to help run relief efforts.

The Democrat, was not informed of the timing of Bush's visit to Louisiana on Monday, nor was she immediately invited to meet him or travel with him.

News of the levee repair Sunday came as many of the 460,000 residents of suburban Jefferson Parish waited in a line of cars that stretched for miles to briefly see their flooded homes, and to scoop up soaked wedding pictures, baby shoes and other cherished mementoes.

"A lot of these people built these houses anticipating some flood water but nobody imagined this," sobbed Diane Dempsey, a 59-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel who could get no closer than the water line a mile from her Metairie home. "I'm going to pay someone to get me back there, anything I have to do."

"I won't be getting inside today unless I get some scuba gear," added Jack Rabito, a 61-year-old bar owner who waited for a ride to visit his one-story home that had water lapping to the gutters.

Katharine Dastugue was overjoyed to find that floodwaters had gone across her lawn but stopped just inches from her doorstep. As she stood waiting for a boat to take her in, she made a list of thing she hoped to salvage before being forced to leave again Wednesday.

"If I can just get my kids' baby photos," she said. "You can't replace those."

In New Orleans, Nagin upticked his estimate of the probable death toll in his city from merely thousands, telling NBC's "Today" show, "It wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000."

As law enforcement officers and even bands of civilians — including actor Sean Penn — launched door-to-door searches of the city for survivors, they were running up against a familiar obstacle: People who had been trapped more than a week in damaged homes yet refused to leave.

"We have advised people that this city has been destroyed," said Deputy Police Superintendent W.J. Riley. "There is nothing here for them and no reason for them to stay, no food, no jobs, nothing."

Riley, who estimated fewer than 10,000 people were left in the city, said some simply did not want to leave their homes — while others were hanging back to engage in criminal activities, such as looting.

Nagin said the city had the authority to force residents to evacuate but didn't say if it was taking that step. He did, however, detail one heavy-handed tactic: Water will no longer be handed out to people who refuse to leave.
  • Scott Benjamin

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