By John Bebow and Dawn Turner Trice

Chicago Tribune

JACKSON, Miss. – Marooned refugees and their elected leaders erupted in frustration over the slow pace of rescue operations Thursday as New Orleans sank deeper into Third World conditions and the Gulf Coast languished in ruins.

Why, they asked on day four of what could be the nation’s worst natural disaster, was is it taking so long for the helpless to be pulled from the city? Why hasn’t there been a massive, visible federal response there? Why isn’t there more food and fresh water there and along the battered coast?

Bountiful supplies of ice, water and food remained largely backed up miles from the Gulf Coast, as truck drivers struggled to squeeze through the few open roads to New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and other crumbling cities. Many phones were still dead and fuel and electricity remained rare commodities.

Driven to near madness after waiting for transportation out of New Orleans for days, some refugees took to violence, firing potshots at relief helicopters. One marooned hospital doctor called journalists in a desperate plea for rescue of his ailing patients.

And the hurricane experts shook their heads in disgust and futility, much of it directed at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“We told FEMA, and we told them long ago, and we told them more than once that they needed to purchase the land for tent cities with full facilities in anticipation of this,” said Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, where experts warned since the late 1990s that New Orleans’ levees couldn’t withstand the storm surge of a major hurricane.

“They told me Americans don’t live in tents,” van Heerden said. “I guess that sums up their attitude.”

Bush Administration officials insisted Thursday they were doing all they could, especially given the enormity of the devastation.

“It is a major catastrophe, and there is a major response to this catastrophe,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “We are fully committed to making sure that the needs on the ground are met. I can understand people who have not received the help they need being frustrated at this point. It’s going to take time to get help to some people.”

And FEMA chief Michael Brown defended the federal response as “unprecedented,” insisting plenty of food had been provided to the Superdome refugee site and more was on the way for those stranded at the city’s convention center nearby.

“They are doing every single thing they can and meeting every single request,” said Brown, three days after the hurricane made landfall and well after bloated Lake Pontchartrain burst through levees and flooded New Orleans.

Brown suggested “the whole country needs to take a collective breath.”

In a press release distributed Thursday evening, FEMA officials took partial credit for many New Orleans accomplishments this week, including shelter of 91,000 refugees, rescue of 4,800 people, deployment of 1,200 medical personnel, hourly arrivals of more food supplies in stricken areas, hiring 650 buses for refugee migration to Texas, and coordination of 16,000 law enforcement personnel.

But Louisiana officials couldn’t contain their frustration.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, sounding both outraged and despondent on a local radio call-in program, decried what he said was federal foot-dragging. He used profanities to criticize the government’s failure to send in enough National Guard troops to quell the spreading violence inside the city.

“Don’t tell me 40,000 troops are coming down here,” Nagin yelled into his telephone. “They’re not here. People are dying here.”

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was less vitriolic, but still distressed.

“We would have wanted massive numbers of helicopters on Tuesday,” she said. “There’s the reality, and there’s the wish, the need, the frustration. Today, I think we are feeling the full force of what the federal capacity is. FEMA has been working very hard.”

In the city Thursday, refugees still huddled by the hungry thousands in the fetid heat, still waiting for buses, gazing up at hovering helicopters like last December’s tsunami refugees in Indonesia.

“You can do everything for other countries but you can’t do nothing for your own people,” complained 47-year-old Daniel Edwards outside the New Orleans convention center, speaking to the Associated Press. “You can go overseas with the military but you can’t get them down here. They’ve been teasing us with buses for four days.”

Some people were so frustrated with the government they considered launching private rescue missions.

“There have been no evacuation efforts, nothing,” said Justin Dees, referring to University Hospital in New Orleans, where his father-in-law, a senior physician, is stranded. Dees, a 28-year-old law student in Florida, said he’s looking into hiring a boat to carry his father-in-law away from the hospital to safety.

Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, tractor-trailer trucks carrying ice and water finally arrived, but in Gulfport there was no one to distribute the supplies. National Guard members and police stood by to keep anxious and thirsty residents under control. Eventually, the officers had to unload the water, while others stood on the side of the highway offering it to people as they drove by.

And officials in Harrison County, which includes Biloxi and Gulfport, promised for the second day that non-perishable ready-to-eat meals were en route to the area, but as of Thursday night, no meals had been distributed.

Key roads also remained jammed. All lanes but one of Highway 49, from Hattiesburg to the coast, were closed. The open lane was limited to emergency and essential personnel traveling to the area. Some areas of Interstate 10 filled with evacuees trying to return to their homes. Bridges are out on some roads and debris still covers others.

Relief organizations also struggled to do their jobs.

“It’s unprecedented to have to move hundreds of thousands of people out of an entire metropolitan area,” said national United Way CEO Brian Gallagher. “The logistics are just immense.”

The United Way’s downtown New Orleans office was still underwater Thursday and the Gulfport office was “gone, literally gone,” Gallagher said, adding that he was still trying to locate several key Gulf Coast staffers who hadn’t been heard from since Katrina’s landfall.

Some United States-based foreign aid relief workers found themselves gazing at their television screens in sullen, knowing irony.

“It’s always shocking, it’s always frustrating,” said Christoph Gorder, vice president of Americares, the Connecticut-based relief agency. “But in the Third World this would have been ten times worse. I know that’s no consolation to the people who are still on their roofs.”

And in Florida, some veterans of last year’s wave of hurricane destruction wrung their hands at the slow pace of rescue in New Orleans.

“Like everyone, I’m watching with disbelief,” said Chris Reynolds, a Tampa-based professor of emergency management at American Military University. “Why was there such a long delay?”

Still, Reynolds urged empathy for the relief workers who, after four days, “are exhausted and have a sense of hopelessness.”

It’s a hopelessness with no end in sight.

“I fear the worst is yet to come,” said Jennifer Leaning, a Harvard University public health professor who is helping with the Red Cross relief coordination. “No refugee population in the world lives like this. There is a vast need for at least a little personal privacy. The sanitation problems, disease, and civil unrest will grow. To think that we can house people in the open in these vast shelters like the Superdome and the Astrodome for more than a couple weeks is delusional.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.