Da The New York Times del 08/09/2005
Originale su http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/08/national/nationalspecial/08storm.htm...

Forced Evacuation of a Battered New Orleans Begins

di Alex Berenson, Sewell Chan

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 7 - With the waters inside this city growing increasingly fetid and thousands of people still holding out, New Orleans police officers began on Wednesday evening to force residents to leave, including those living in dry and undamaged homes.

It was not clear how widespread the forced evacuations were. But earlier in the day the city's police superintendent said that while his department would concentrate first on removing those who wanted to leave, the hazards posed by fires, waterborne diseases and natural-gas leaks had left the city with no choice but to use force on those who resisted.

In at least one neighborhood, Bywater, a working-class area east of the French Quarter, police officers and federal agents on Wednesday night began to press hard for residents to evacuate. At two homes, police officers and emergency service workers refused to leave until the two men living there agreed to go with them, even though both men appeared healthy and said they had adequate supplies.

Until now, city and state officials have implored residents to leave, but no one has been forcibly removed. The announced change in policy - after an evacuation order by Mayor C. Ray Nagin on Tuesday - came even as the floodwater receded slightly and residents in some sections took small steps toward recovery, cleaning debris from their streets and boarding up abandoned houses.

Some said they would fight the evacuations, potentially producing ugly confrontations.

An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people remained inside New Orleans more than a week after Hurricane Katrina hit, many in neighborhoods that are on high ground near the Mississippi River.

But the number of dead still remained a looming and disturbing question.

In the first indication of how many deaths Louisiana alone might expect, Robert Johannessen, a spokesman for the State Department of Health and Hospitals, said on Wednesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had ordered 25,000 body bags. The official death toll remained at under 100.

In Washington, the House and Senate announced a joint investigation into the government's response to the crisis. "Americans deserve answers," said a statement by the two top-ranking Republicans, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader. "We must do all we can to learn from this tragedy, improve the system and protect all of our citizens."

President Bush made plans to send Congress a request for $51.8 billion for relief efforts, the second such request since the storm devastated the Gulf Coast. The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said the money would include $50 billion for FEMA, $1.4 billion for the Department of Defense and $400 million for the Army Corps of Engineers. The request follows a $10.5 billion package that Mr. Bush signed on Friday and is intended to address the immediate needs of survivors.

The government continued its efforts to help evacuees. At the Astrodome in Houston, where an estimated 15,000 New Orleans evacuees found shelter over the weekend, the number had dwindled to only about 3,000 on Wednesday as people were rapidly placed in apartments, volunteers' homes and hotels that had been promised reimbursement by FEMA.

Michael D. Brown, the FEMA director, said his agency would begin issuing debit cards, worth at least $2,000 each, to allow hurricane victims to buy supplies for immediate needs. More than 319,000 people have already applied for federal disaster relief.

"The concept is to get them some cash in hand," Mr. Brown said, "which allows them, empowers them, to make their own decisions about what they need to have to restart their lives."

As New Orleans officials grappled with how to make residents leave, new government tests showed the danger of remaining.

In the first official confirmation of contaminants in the water covering the city, federal officials said on Wednesday that they had found levels of E. coli bacteria and lead 10 times higher than is considered safe. Those were the only substances identified as potential health threats in tests of water conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency at laboratories in Houston and Lafayette, La.

Officials emphasized that as testing continued more substances were likely to be found at harmful levels, especially from water taken near industrial sites.

"Human contact with the floodwater should be avoided as much as possible," the environmental agency's administrator, Stephen L. Johnson, said.

A spokesman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said state and local officials had reported three deaths in Mississippi and one in Texas from exposure to Vibrio vulnificus, a choleralike bacterium found in salt water, which poses special risks for people with chronic liver problems.

With the overall death toll uncertain, Mr. Brown, the FEMA director, said in Baton Rouge that the formal house-to-house search for bodies had begun at midmorning. He said the temporary mortuary set up in St. Gabriel, La., was prepared to receive 500 to 1,000 bodies a day, with refrigeration trucks on site to hold the corpses.

"They will be processed as rapidly as possible," Mr. Brown said.

As it worked to remove the water inundating the city, the Corps of Engineers said that one additional pumping station, No. 6, at the head of the 17th Street Canal, had started up, and that about 10 percent of the city's total pumping capacity was in operation. But the corps added that it was dealing with a new problem: how to prevent corpses from being sucked to the grates at the pump inlets.

"We're expending every effort to try to ensure that we protect the integrity of remains as we get this water out of the city," said John S. Rickey, chief of public affairs for the corps. "We're taking this very personally. This is a very deep emotional aspect of our work down there."

As the forcible removal of New Orleans residents also threatened to become an emotional issue, the city's superintendent of police, P. Edwin Compass III, said at a news conference on Wednesday morning that such evacuations would not begin until the police had helped the thousands of people who wanted leave.

"Once all the voluntary evacuations have taken place," Mr. Compass said, "then we'll concentrate our efforts and our forces to mandatorily evacuating individuals."

But on Wednesday night, a city police officer and a dozen heavily armed immigration agents broke into a house in Bywater without knocking or announcing their presence, saying they were looking for a looter. The house was clean and neat and the only person inside, Anthony Paul, lived there, according to his state-issued identification.

Although Mr. Paul appeared to be in good health and had plenty of food and water, a psychologist with an emergency services team that was called to the house said she would not leave until Mr. Paul agreed to evacuate. The psychologist said that Mr. Paul was mentally stable, but that she wanted him to leave for his own safety. "If I'm leaving, you guys are leaving," said the psychologist, who identified herself only as Rain.

At one point Mr. Paul said, "You're going to have to kill me to get me out of this house." But after nearly an hour, he agreed to leave and packed a single backpack.

"I didn't want to leave right now," he said as he prepared to board an ambulance. "If I had a choice, yeah, I would have rode it out."

The psychologist said that she viewed the evacuation as voluntary and that Mr. Paul would eventually appreciate that he had made the right choice. "This is why I wake up in the morning," she said.

Among the authorities, though, some confusion lingered on Wednesday about how a widespread evacuation by force would work, and how much support it would get at the federal and state level. Mayor Nagin told the police and the military on Tuesday to remove all residents for their own safety, and on Wednesday, Mr. Compass said state laws gave the mayor the authority to declare martial law and order the evacuations.

"There's a martial law declaration in place that gives us legal authority for mandatory evacuations," Mr. Compass said. "We'll use the minimum amount of force necessary."

But because the New Orleans Police Department has only about 1,000 working officers, the city is largely in the hands of National Guard troops and active-duty soldiers.

State officials said Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco could tell the Guard to carry out the forced removals, but they stopped short of a commitment to do so. In Washington, Lt. Gen. Joseph R. Inge, deputy commander of the United States Northern Command, said regular troops "would not be used" in any forced evacuation.

The state disaster law does not supersede either the state or federal Constitutions, said Kenneth M. Murchison, a law professor at Louisiana State University. But even so, Mr. Nagin's decision could be a smart strategy that does not violate fundamental rights, Professor Murchison said.

"What I suspect is that if they do forcible evacuations, the authorities will tell the residents that they must leave and that they will arrest them if they don't," Professor Murchison said. "I would suspect that once they are moved to a location outside of New Orleans, the authorities will release them. It would then be up to the district attorney someday to decide whether to prosecute them or not. But in the meantime, the authorities sure aren't going to let anyone back in."

Professor Murchison said that anyone even seeking to challenge the forcible evacuations on constitutional grounds would have to travel to Baton Rouge, where the federal judges from the Eastern District of Louisiana, based in New Orleans, have relocated.

While many New Orleans residents said they would not go gently, others appeared disheveled, weak and ready to evacuate.

Sitting under an umbrella in a filthy parking lot at the eastern edge of Bywater, Anthony Washington said on Wednesday morning that he worried he would not be able to reach his family if he left the city. But after a reporter offered him the chance to call his sister and explain where he was, he said he would leave. By midafternoon Mr. Washington had boarded a bus for the city's convention center, where evacuees were being taken.

"I don't have nothing here," he said.
Annotazioni − Alex Berenson reported from New Orleans for this article, Sewell Chan from Baton Rouge, La., and Matthew L. Wald from Vicksburg, Miss.

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