Troops have begun the final search for hurricane survivors in New Orleans, steeling themselves for the task of harvesting the dead from the city’s streets.
Days after Hurricane Katrina triggered the worst natural calamity in US history, officials prepared the country for a death toll that is expected to number in the thousands across the devastated US Gulf coast.
“It is going to be about as ugly a scene as we’ve witnessed in this country, with the possible exception of 9/11,” Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertof said, referring to the 2001 terror attacks that killed nearly 3000 people.
“I think we need to prepare the country for what’s coming,” he said from a suburb of flooded New Orleans.
“I really want to tell people that we have got some tough days ahead of us.”
Senior medical officials said 59 bodies had been collected in New Orleans so far, but cautioned that was just a fraction of those killed…
In a freak event earlier today, unidentified gunmen shot at contractors for the US Army Corps of Engineers who were repairing levees.
Before the grisly hunt for the dead began in earnest, troops scrambled to move out thousands of survivors still eager for evacuation amid the largest refugee operation ever seen in the US.
The troops will start a house-to-house search for trapped residents who had opted to weather Katrina at home, and suggested they would have to leave whether they wanted to or not.
“We are not going to be able to have people sitting in houses in the city of New Orleans for weeks and months while we drain and clean this city with the hope that we’re going to continue to supply them with food and water.
“The flooded places, when drained, are not going to be sanitary, not healthy. There’s not going to be a way to get food and water,” said Chertoff on NBC’s Meet the Press program.
Even as he spoke, residents of one New Orleans suburb were thronging police checkpoints in a bid to return to their homes.
Chertoff made the rounds of talk shows as part of a public-relations blitz launched by President George W. Bush’s administration to counter widespread criticism of its response to Katrina.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have fanned out across stricken areas, while Mr Bush is planning his second tour in three days.
Chertoff defended the administration’s handling of the crisis and stressed the immediate need was to deal with recovery and the needs of hundreds of thousands of refugees rather than getting bogged down in assigning blame.
“We are basically moving the city of New Orleans to other parts of the country,” he said.
Authorities have estimated it would take several months to drain the one-time bustling jazz capital and make it habitable.
“We have to shelter people, we have to feed them, we have to educate their kids, we have to get them medium-term housing and we have to give them hope,” he said.
Relief and rescue efforts picked up steam over the weekend, with New Orleans’ two major refuges cleared of the last of tens of thousands of survivors who had spent nearly a week trapped in squalor and fear.
But authorities were still struggling to get on top of the situation after the hurricane that had left mostly poor and black residents fending for themselves for days.
At New Orleans airport, which was transformed into a holding pen for the elderly and infirm as well as a gateway for the departing, dozens of people from nursing homes and hospitals lay dying on stretchers on the floor.
“Their organs are shutting down,” chaplain Mark Reeves from the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team said of the patients.
“They are septic. They are storm victims. We’ve already had 25 die here.”
The spectre of disease also haunted recovery efforts with doctors fearing the fetid waters and squalid conditions in shelters could breed cholera or typhoid, or spawn mosquitoes carrying malaria or West Nile virus.
The authorities in the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, had to evacuate hundreds of people from one shelter amid a suspected outbreak of dysentery.
Bush ordered 7000 active duty troops to the affected Gulf Coast region to back tens of thousands of National Guardsmen deployed.