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Hurricane Katrina: Continuing Recovery

September 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: St. Gabriel, Louisiana, will soon become a city of the dead. Vast warehouse space has been opened in this town south of Baton Rouge — new morgues where the grim processing of Katrina’s worst victims will begin. But the recovery of bodies still remains secondary to the rescue efforts in flooded precincts of New Orleans. Increasingly, search teams are finding residents still in their homes, determined to stay, despite repeated warnings of the possibly fatal consequences. The standing water in New Orleans has turned into a witches’ brew of sewage, chemicals, oil, and gas, and decaying human and animal corpses. At least one toxic waste site has been identified, below ground, and now flooded. Microbiologist Paul Pearce says the problems won’t end, even when draining begins.

PAUL PEARCE: In terms of total microorganisms in flood water, this is about as bad as it gets. Just because the water is gone doesn’t mean contaminating bacteria is gone.

GWEN IFILL: There have been some signs of progress. The water level — 20 feet in some locations — has begun, slowly, to drop. One main levee breach has been repaired, and two of the mammoth pumping stations that failed during the hurricane have come back on line. The pumps are emptying water into Lake Pontchartrain, a process that could take up to three months, according to engineers. Officials are dreading what will be found once New Orleans is pumped dry. Mayor Ray Nagin appeared on NBC this morning.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN: It’s going to be awful, and it’s going to wake the nation up again.

It’s my understanding the FEMA morgue team is in place, and they’re going to start extractions in the drier areas and via boat with the bodies that are floating later today.

GWEN IFILL: After an aerial tour, the mayor said the situation is slowly improving, estimating that 60 percent of the city is submerged, down from 80 percent last week.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN: We are starting to see some significant progress. I’m starting to see rays of light all throughout what we’re doing.

GWEN IFILL: He also urged any residents who remain to leave. I’m starting to see rays of light all throughout what we’re doing.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN: The spirit is “I don’t want to abandon my city.” It’s okay. Leave for a little while. Let us get you to a better place. Let us clean the city up, and I promise you will come to a city safe and a city that’s better.

GWEN IFILL: The mayor also said some water service could be restored within the week. That could aid overstretched firefighters battling blazes that have burned out of control in some areas of the city, like today in the historic Garden District.

City officials are also beginning to deal with people apprehended during the lawlessness of last week. About 130 suspects are being held in a temporary facility on the outskirts of the city. Many will be shipped to a prison in St. Gabriel. Meanwhile, in Mississippi, electricity has been restored to parts of Gulfport, a city without many homes left to service, and a massive supply effort is beginning to hit its stride.

In Houston, the new home to thousands displaced by Katrina, some evacuees are already moving out of the Astrodome and into vacant apartments in the area.

WOMAN: This is your pantry here. Also, you have a microwave, and I’ll set your microwave for you.

GWEN IFILL: Tate Wilson will move his wife and daughter from their weigh station in Mississippi.

TATE WILSON: Things have been going so fast, I don’t even know how many days I’ve been here. I don’t know much of anything.

GWEN IFILL: But the sudden influx of evacuees into Texas has worried some residents, including the president’s mother. Barbara Bush spoke to the public radio program Marketplace last night.

BARBARA BUSH: What I’m hearing — which is sort of scary — is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this (chuckles) this is working very well for them.

GWEN IFILL: Her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, is co-directing a private fundraising relief effort — evacuees from Louisiana continue to arrive in far-flung cities around the country.

GIRL: Everybody feels like anybody but New Orleans. Like, just get me out; that’s how everybody feels.

GWEN IFILL: This group arrived at an armory in the nation’s capital this afternoon.