New Orleans: City of ghosts

Evacuation nearly complete; Rescuers fear 'thousands of corpses; Up to 150 Britons unaccounted for
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The Independent US

As federal rescue workers made their belated entry into New Orleans and began to fan out across the city in significant numbers, authorities in the overwhelmed city braced themselves for the gruesome task of locating and cataloguing the dead ­ on rooftops, in waterlogged attics, floating along the fetid rivers that were once streets and lying out in the scorching heat in full view of the anxious survivors.

Bush administration officials, fighting to salvage their reputations after a week in which they were accused of compounding a natural calamity into one of the most shameful failures of government in American history, warned the news would only get worse in the days ahead.

Michael Leavitt, the Health and Human Services Secretary, said yesterday the death toll was sure to climb into the thousands.

In London, the Foreign Office said as many as 131 Britons remained unaccounted for. As the US authorities sought to gain control of New Orleans last night, police opened fire on eight people, killing at least five, after gunmen shot at contractors on their way to repair a canal breach.

Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Secretary, most directly responsible for the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, warned: "We need to prepare the country for what's coming. We're going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, caught by the flood. It will be about as ugly a scene as you can imagine."

National Guardsmen now a significant presence across New Orleans and evacuation proceeding apace ­ the last residents of the Superdome left on Saturday night ­ order is being restored in the centre of the battered city. The circumstances surrounding last night's shooting remained unclear, but John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said that fourteen contractors were being escorted across the Danziger Bridge when they came under fire. He said that none of the contractors were killed.

The federal authorities have said they intend to clear the city of all inhabitants so they can begin pumping out the water and bringing an almost drowned city back to life. Secretary Chertoff told Fox News that staying behind was not an option for the city's residents. He said rescuers had encountered pockets of resistance during house-to-house searches over the weekend but said staying put was "not a reasonable alternative".

"We are not going to be able to have people sitting in houses in New Orleans while we de-water and clean this city ... The flooded places, when they're de-watered, are not going to be sanitary."

For all the continuing trauma ­ hunger, thirst, looting, outbreaks of gun violence and the spread of disease from unclean water and human waste ­ there is now a surge in rescue activity.

To expedite the rescues, the Coast Guard requested through the media that anyone stranded hang out brightly coloured or white linens or something else to draw attention. But with the electricity out through much of the city, it was not known if the message was being received.

On the highways leading west towards Baton Rouge, there are columns of emergency vehicles and recovery crews. Power company workers are pouring in to the city to help with the recovery. There has been a manifold increase in the numbers of soldiers and law enforcement personnel in the city, something that has calmed some anxious residents.

President Bush ordered an extra 7,000 active-service military personnel to the Gulf Coast on Saturday to bolster the National Guard presence. One thing that is being achieved is the evacuation of the sick and injured.

New Orleans International Airport has seen an extra-ordinary movement of people in the past two days. Don Jacques, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), said 13,000 people, including 2,500 sick and injured, were evacuated on Saturday, the same number the airport would deal with on a busy summer weekend.

On the runway, members of the Air Force National Guard were yesterday continuing to fill C130 planes with the injured and the well. The most critically ill were being carried down the loading ramps on stretchers and then put on airport luggage trolleys to take them to the rear loading bays of the planes. Old and frail patients were carried on to the tarmac and then placed on hanging stretchers inside the aircraft.

One man with a family of five was about to fly to Nashville, Tennessee. Sterling Brooks, 69, had stayed in a hotel for five days before being evacuated at the weekend. "I have not even seen my house yet,'' he said. "I would expect that it's under water.'' Asked when he expected to return, he said: "We don't know yet. We just don't know yet.''