Months of homelessness, years of rebuilding

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The Independent US

Officials in Louisiana were preparing to evacuate tens of thousands of people still stranded in New Orleans last night - underlining how long it will take to return the city and the region to any sort of normality.

Having initially thought the Crescent City had escaped the worst of Katrina's devastation, it became increasingly clear yesterday that it had suffered terrible damage and that flood water was rising rather than falling.

"The situation is untenable. It's just heartbreaking," said Governor Kathleen Blanco, as she explained that up to 30,000 people taking refuge in the city's Superdome sports centre would also have to be evacuated.

"The first goal is to bring enough supplies in to sustain those folks until we can develop a network to get them out," she said. "We're going to try to get those people relocated as soon as we can possibly get a plan together ... There's no power. It's hot. It's difficult to get food to them. There's water lapping at the foot of the Superdome now."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) said it was considering putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks, or so-called floating dormitories, boats the agency normally uses to house its own employees, said its co-ordinating director, Bill Lokey. Mr Lokey said recovery will take so long that some workers could spend their entire career working on the damage caused by Katrina. "This is the most significant natural disaster to hit the United States," he said.

Officials are also in the process of organising the evacuation of around 2,500 patients from seven hospitals in the city. Officials warned that rising flood-waters were threatening the emergency back-up generators the hospitals were using after their mains power failed.

One of the few hospitals still taking patients was the Ochsner Clinic, situated a relatively lofty eight feet above sea level. "We don't have unlimited capacity. We are trying to take in only patients with life-threatening illnesses," Dr Joe Guarisco, director of the emergency department, said.

Yesterday, that included two near-fatal electrocutions of people who tried to return to flooded areas, and others who were injured by flying glass when wind and water smashed their shelters. Several women in the hospital gave birth during the ordeal. Each baby was announced with a tune over the loudspeaker. "Nobody named one Katrina yet," said a clinic spokeswoman, Katherine Voss.

Officials will also have to move around 5,000 prison inmates from New Orleans. Last night, they were considering how this could be done safely without compromising security.

Officials along the 150-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast affected by the hurricane were all warning that there would be no quick fix. Many communities have no electricity, no water and no means of communication. "The damage is catastrophic and widespread," Jim Pollard, a Fema spokesman in Harrison County, Mississippi, said. "There's virtually not a building here in Gulfport that's not substantially damaged."

Governor Blanco asked residents to spend today in prayer. "That would be the best thing to calm our spirits and thank our Lord that we are survivors," she said. "Slowly, gradually, we will recover. We will survive, we will rebuild."