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New Orleans: Levee Breach Swamps City From Lake To River
by NOLA (reposted)
Wednesday Aug 31st, 2005 6:39 AM
August 31, 2005
By Dan Shea
Staff writer for The Times-Picayune
New Orleans became an unimaginable scene of water, fear and suffering Tuesday after a levee breach in the 17th Street Canal sent billions of gallons of Lake Pontchartrain coursing through the city.

As the day wore on, the only dry land was a narrow band from the French Quarter and parts of Uptown, the same small strip that was settled by Bienville amid the swamps.

On Tuesday night, it appeared the city was returning to swamp when a daylong effort to shore the levee near the Hammond Highway failed.

Mayor Ray Nagin said pumps were being overwhelmed and warned that a new deluge would bury the city in up to 15 feet of water.

With solid water from the lake to the French Quarter, the inundation and depopulation of an entire American city was at hand.

"Truth to tell, we're not to far from filling in the bowl," said Terry Ebbert, the city's director of homeland security. The waters were still rising at 3 inches per hour, and eventually could move close to the French Quarter levee.

Although the breach occurred on the Orleans side of the canal, it did not spare the Jefferson side. Water found its way into much of the east bank, meeting the flow that came in from the west from Hurricane Katrina's storm surge Monday.

An accurate tally of death was hard to determine. Five deaths related to Katrina have been confirmed in Jefferson Parish, officials said. There also are seven people missing who decided to ride out Katrina on Grand Isle.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco spoke of "many deaths," but there were only rumors and anecdotes of firefighters tying floating bodies to trees.

"We have some bodies floating," Ebbert said. "Not like thousands, but we have seen some." As to the living, with the absence of cars and electric motors in the powerless city, a sad tableau played itself out in an eerie quiet.

All day, a weary army of storm victims trudged through waist-deep muddy water toward the Superdome, where more than 20,000 people took refuge. The next problem is what to do with them. Late Tuesday Gov. Blanco ordered them out, saying the facility was too damaged to house people and the atmosphere too dangerous. Officials said the National Guard soon would begin driving them out to dry ground, then airlift them out of southeast Louisiana.

In other areas, lawlessness took hold.

The giant new Wal-Mart in the Lower Garden District was looted, after a limited distribution of supplies broke down in chaos. The entire gun collection was taken.

"There are gangs of armed men in the city moving around the city," Ebbert said.

One looter shot a New Orleans police officer, who was in critical condition with a head wound.

Although local police focused solely on rescue, a call for help was answered by swarms of deputies from western Louisiana parishes.

But cops on the street, cut off from their superiors by a failure of the communications system, complained of chaos.

"Put this in your paper," one officer on Canal Street said. "They told us nothing. We were unprepared. We are completely on our own.''

If it wasn't coordinated, the rescue was heroic.

Firefighters, police and Coast Guardsmen waded through water and climbed to roofs.

"We've got boats everywhere," said Capt. Tim Bayard of the New Orleans Police Department.

"We're going to try and get who we can get and take them to higher ground. We may have to come back for some."

There were joined by an armada of Louisiana sportsmen in flat-bottomed boats, who responded to an appeal for help.

Ferdinand Emory rescued about 100 people, ten at a time in his boat. Ebbert estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people were saved in Lakeview and Mid-City.

But rescue from the water didn't mean an end to misery. They were simply dropped off at the few stretches of dry ground, overpasses and parking lots along Metairie Ridge.

Aleck Scallan, 63, a parapelgic, was ferried in a boat from his Lakeview home. But he had been sitting for more than six hours on an overpass, with no clear indication when he and scores of others would be picked up.

Along the Metairie Road railroad embankment, the only passage through two parishes, people wandered aimlessly, along with dogs and cats that headed for high ground.

After the rescue effort, the next priority is trying to heal the breach. Ebbert said plans called for giant panels to be dropped in place in place by helicopter, accompanied by

50, 3,000-pound sandbags. Next the Interstate 10 underpass under the railroad trestle would have to be drained, after the giant new pumping station uttlerly failed its first test.

That would give disaster recovery teams open access to the city from the west.

The failure of the Industrial Canal levee created massive flooding in St. Bernard and the 9th Ward on Monday.

Estimates on when the city would become habitable again ranged from two weeks to months.
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