Rising water in, around Superdome to force evacuation

Updated: August 31, 2005, 8:59 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Rescuers in boats and helicopters struggled to reach hundreds of wet and bedraggled victims of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast on Tuesday, while New Orleans slipped deeper into crisis as water began rising in the streets because of levee breaks.

Red Cross

In New Orleans, water began rising in the streets Tuesday morning, swamping an estimated 80 percent of the city and prompting the evacuation of hotels and hospitals. The water was also rising perilously inside New Orleans' Superdome, and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the tens of thousands of people now huddled there and other shelters would have to be evacuated as well.

Blanco said she wanted the Superdome -- which had become a shelter of last resort for about 20,000 people -- evacuated within two days, though was still unclear where the people would go. The air conditioning inside the Superdome was out, the toilets were broken, and tempers were rising in the sweltering heat.

"Conditions are degenerating rapidly," she said. "It's a very, very desperate situation."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was considering putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks, and so-called floating dormitories -- boats the agency uses to house its own employees.

Because of two levees that broke Tuesday, the city was rapidly filling with water, the governor said. She also said the power could be out for a long time, and the storm broke a major water main, leaving the city without drinkable water. Also, looting broke out in some neighborhoods.

"At first light, the devastation is greater than our worst fears. It's just totally overwhelming," Blanco said the morning after Katrina howled ashore with winds of 145 mph and engulfed thousands of homes in one of the most punishing storms on record in the United States.

At the Superdome, someone died after plunging from an upper level of the stadium, said Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' homeland security chief. He said the person probably jumped.

National Guardsmen brought in people from outlying areas to the Superdome in the backs of big 2½-ton Army trucks earlier Tuesday. Louisiana's wildlife enforcement department also brought people in on the backs of their pickups. Some were wet, some were in wheelchairs, some were holding babies and nothing else.

Also, the rising water forced one New Orleans hospital to move patients to the Superdome, and prompted the staff of New Orleans' Times-Picayune newspaper to abandon its offices, authorities said. Hotels were evacuated as well as the water kept rising.

Downtown streets that were relatively clear in the hours after the storm were filled with 1 to 1½ feet of water Tuesday morning. Water was knee-deep around the Superdome. Canal Street was literally a canal. Water lapped at the edge of the French Quarter. Clumps of red ants floated in the gasoline-fouled waters downtown.

"It's a very slow rise, and it will remain so until we plug that breach. I think we can get it stabilized in a few hours," Ebbert said.

AP photo/Eric Gay National Guard trucks haul residents through floodwaters after officials called for a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.

New Orleans lies mostly below sea level and is protected by a network of pumps, canals and levees. Officials began using helicopters to drop 3,000-pound sandbags onto one of the levees, hoping to close the breach.

All day, rescuers were also seen using helicopters to drop lifelines to victims and pluck them from the roofs of homes cut off by floodwaters. The Coast Guard said it rescued some 1,200 people.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said hundreds, if not thousands, of people may still be stuck on roofs and in attics, and so rescue boats were bypassing the dead.

"We're not even dealing with dead bodies," Nagin said. "They're just pushing them on the side."

Tens of thousands of people will need shelter for weeks if not months, said Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And once the floodwaters go down, "it's going to be incredibly dangerous" because of structural damage to homes, diseases from animal carcasses and chemicals in homes, he said.

An estimated 40,000 people were in American Red Cross shelters along the Gulf Coast.

Officials warned people against trying to return to their homes, saying that would only interfere with the rescue and recovery efforts.

Looting broke out in Biloxi and in New Orleans, in some cases in full view of police and National Guardsmen. On New Orleans' Canal Street, the main thoroughfare in the central business district, looters sloshed through hip-deep water and ripped open the steel gates on the front of several clothing and jewelry stores.

As for the death toll in Louisiana, Blanco said only: "We have no counts whatsoever, but we know many lives have been lost."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.