Saturday, September 03, 2005

The following report comes from the Times-Picayune website (www.nola.com).

Receding floodwaters reveal devastation of St. Bernard

Bodies found as rescue continues
By Paul Rioux and Manuel Torres
Staff writers

As the bodies of Hurricane Katrina's victims in St. Bernard Parish continued surfacing Thursday, local and state officials said thousands of residents had yet to be rescued and at least 2,000 others risked dehydration in a crammed makeshift shelter at the parish port. "It's an absolutely horrific sight," State Rep. Nita Hutter, R-Chalmette, said of bodies found floating in areas across the parish. Officials don't have an estimate on how high the death toll may reach.

But the hellish scenario prompted Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez to send an SOS into cyberspace, imploring President Bush in an e-mail message to contact him and send help."I am in danger of having many citizens die if they are not rescued now," Rodriguez wrote in an e-mail sent late Wednesday to the White House and confirmed Thursday by parish officials. "On behalf of the citizens of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, I am begging for your help," it read. Rodriguez's plea came as a flotilla of St. Bernard residents using their private boats, joined by federal and state agencies, rushed to retrieve residents stranded in their roofs and attics since Katrina submerged the parish under up to 20 feet of water on Monday.

The storm flooded practically every one of St. Bernard's 26,700 homes. "We are talking about the complete destruction of St. Bernard Parish as we know it," said Parish Council Chairman Joey DiFatta. "Every neighborhood, every street, every home, every building has water - lots of it."DiFatta called Rodriguez's e-mail message an "act of desperation" after several futile attempts to reach federal authorities. He said Rodriguez has yet to receive a response to the message.The White House press office could not be reached for comment Thursday.

DiFatta said Rodriguez and a handful of parish officials are guiding some rescue efforts from an office at Chalmette Refining LLC."It's the only dry spot left," DiFatta said. But illustrating the difficult conditions officials face to manage rescue efforts, DiFatta said a reporter's call Thursday afternoon was the first to get through on his cell phone in nearly two days.Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, one of the few state officials who have entered the parish, said personnel with FEMA and the state Wildlife and Fisheries Department are working to collect stranded residents. In a parish where many people make their living on the water or own recreational boats, dozens of residents have also been using their vessels to help, DiFatta said.Landrieu said the parish jail at the intersection of Parish Road and St. Bernard Highway has been transformed into a makeshift hospital.

Patients are being airlifted out of the area.He also said the St. Bernard Sheriff's Office has staged a collection point for refugees at the parish courthouse in Chalmette. People are then being moved to a makeshift shelter at St. Bernard Port, from where they are being ferried across the Mississippi River to Algiers, Landrieu said. "We are now starting to go house to house to find the ones we can't see or hear," he said. "Our biggest fear is how high the death toll will be."With 2,000 people crammed into the port's slip, DiFatta said officials are about the wellbeing of the evacuees. He said who are being treated for dehydration after spending up to three days in the searing heat of their attics or exposed to the blazing sun on rooftops.Parish officials said they need food, water and medicine. They also are trying to arrange for a large vessel to begin evacuating people from the port shelter.

The magnitude of the disaster in St. Bernard has surpassed Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which flooded thousands of homes, mostly in Arabi; killed dozens of residents; and forced many to escape the waters by climbing into their attics and then hacking holes in the roofs.Like Betsy, Katrina has produced examples of extreme survival measures in the parish. Rescuers saved a man who lashed himself to a tree to avoid being swept out to sea as floodwaters surged beyond 20 feet. Another resident, Ernie Geraci of Poydras, swam to a boat moored at a nearby house to rescue his wife and two adult children after 7 feet of water rushed into their home."In two minutes the water rose 2 feet. In 30 minutes it was up to 4 feet," said Geraci, who jumped from a second story window to get the boat.

DiFatta said he has tried for two days to reach the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss blowing up parts of the Lake Borgne Basin levee to drain water trapped inside the parish."The levees that used to protect us are now threatening people's lives," he said.In the western half of the parish, water levels have dropped to 10 feet or below in most spots. In the eastern half outside the levee protection system, roads are beginning to emerge from the floodwaters, said Geraci, who is staying on a boat owned by his company, Shallow Draft Elevating Boats.But Geraci said the good news is bittersweet as the receding floodwaters in eastern St. Bernard have revealed the near total devastation wrought by the storm. He said just a handful of structures remain standing in the communities of Hopedale, Yscloskey and Shell Beach.The devastation throughout the New Orleans area has raised questions about how many displaced residents will return. The extreme flooding will even test the resilience of St. Bernard, where many families have lived with severe storms for generations.

Staff writer Robert Scott contributed to this report.

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