Sunday, September 11, 2005

From rescue to recovery


[Note: This post contains descriptions which some people may find disturbing.]

They've started the gruesome task of locating and removing the dead from New Orleans. Current media reports are saying that the death toll may be significantly less than feared, but I have to believe they're basing that on just as little information as they were the previous forecasts of thousands dead. They were probably being too pessimistic then, and are being too optimistic now. The number of dead, whatever it is, is going to be, as Rudy Guiliani said about the number of firefighters lost in New York on 9/11, "more than we can bear".
As the floodwaters drain from the streets, the city is giving up its dead.

Bodies are found tied together and attached to trees, bridge abutments, fences -- put there by passersby to keep them from washing away. Going house to house, with Vicks VapoRub under their nostrils to block the stench, rescue workers mark houses that hold bodies -- and enter the spots on a global positioning device. Specialists will come later to collect the dead.

After racing to save the living, authorities are now overwhelmed with finding and identifying those who perished -- a task with massive dimensions as Katrina's death toll threatens to climb into the thousands.

Officials have set aside 25,000 body bags as federal workers and specialists from across the country descend on the Gulf Coast to help retrieve the bodies and counsel grieving families.

The federal government also has contracted an international company with decades of experience in dealing with mass casualties, including last year's Asian tsunami, to assist in the effort. Mayor Ray Nagin has predicted that New Orleans' death toll could reach 10,000; other projections have placed the toll even higher.

Now that rifle-carrying soldiers have encouraged many of the living still holed up in their homes to leave, many search teams have shifted their focus to collecting bodies throughout the stricken city and adjoining St. Bernard Parish. The dead are placed in refrigerated trucks and driven to a makeshift morgue in St. Gabriel, just south of Baton Rouge.

At the large metal warehouse, officials with the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a large group of pathologists, DNA and fingerprint experts from around the country, work around the clock trying to identify the bodies.

At least 60 specialists from Houston-based Kenyon International Emergency Services are expected to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency in recovering bodies. Founded in 1929, the company specializes in disaster response and recovery and has handled more than 300 disasters, from hurricanes to airplane crashes. Kenyon specialists were deployed in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and last year's tsunami.

I very well recall that New York prepared for the worst with thousands of body bags, most of which were never needed, because so little in the way of human remains were recovered from Ground Zero, due to the effects of the fire and the collapse of the towers.

What will they be up against in New Orleans and along the rest of the Gulf Coast, after two weeks? In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach describes the way our bodies decompose (as related by Tad Friend in The New Yorker)

[F]irst comes "fresh" (the skins sloughs off the body in sheets); than "bloat" (the body cavity swells with gas generated by bacteria), and, finally, "putrefaction and decay" (The organs liquefy; the brain bubbles out of the mouth and ears).

This is what the rescue workers, police, Guardsman and others will be exposed to.

(3:20pm): The Times-Picayune reports that there will be at least 3 - 4 more weeks of pumping out water before the New Orleans area is drained. This is shorter than the original estimate, but still a long time:

Current projections are that the "primary flooded areas" of Orleans Parish will be dry by Oct. 2, said Dan Hitchings, a director in the corps' Mississippi Valley division. More heavily flooded eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish are expected to be dry by Oct. 8, and Plaquemines Parish by Oct. 18, or about 40 days sooner than initial projections.

Among the signs of progress: Near City Hall, Poydras Street -- which had been under about 3 feet of water -- is dry. Uptown, the water along Carrollton Avenue has receded almost to the Interstate 10 overpass, a drop of at least 3 feet. Parts of the Lower 9th Ward near the river, including blocks of Tricou Street, are drained almost completely, with as much as 5 feet of water receded in some places, leaving behind a crusted, brown sludge.

"Pumps are constantly coming on line," said Marcia St. Martin, the water board's executive director.

By early Saturday, more than 16 of the city's 75 major pumps were working. She was unable to say how much of the city was still under water. Eighty percent of the city was under water at the height of the flooding.

The areas near major pumping stations are expected to dry first. Some said the Lower 9th Ward - though the site of the greatest reduction in water depths so far, thanks to drainage through levee breaches - may be the last to be dry because of likely damage to pumps that drain the neighborhood. To a large extent, what dries out first will depend on which pumps are restored fastest.

Even if the city dries out relatively soon, however, agency officials warned that getting the water out will be just the beginning. The storm's floodwaters caused massive pipe breaks in both the sewerage and water systems, they said. That means it could be more than three months before city tap water is safe to drink. Meanwhile, sewerage and foul floodwaters, for the time being, will be pumped directly into the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

(3:30pm): An EPA official warns that the flood water is even more dangerous than has been reported:

Toxic chemicals in the New Orleans flood waters will make the city unsafe for full human habitation for a decade, a US government official has told The Independent on Sunday. And, he added, the Bush administration is covering up the danger.

In an exclusive interview, Hugh Kaufman, an expert on toxic waste and responses to environmental disasters at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said the way the polluted water was being pumped out was increasing the danger to health.

The pollution was far worse than had been admitted, he said, because his agency was failing to take enough samples and was refusing to make public the results of those it had analysed. "Inept political hacks" running the clean-up will imperil the health of low-income migrant workers by getting them to do the work.

Keep tuned in to see how long Kaufmnan keeps his job -- Bush isn't known for keeping people around who leak bad news from inside his administration. (Incompetent hacks can stick around, as long as they remain loyal to Bush and keep their mouths shut. If they're lucky, they'll be put out to pasture with a nice medal.)

Speaking of the privacy fetish exhibited by Bush & Company, this struck me as reminiscent of the old Soviet Union, where Kremlinologists spent their time trying to determine who was in power and who was out of favor by where they stood while watching the May Day parade:

Amid escalating calls for Brown's ouster, the White House had insisted publicly for days that Bush retained confidence in his FEMA chief. But there was no question that Brown's star was fading in the administration. In the storm's early days, Brown was the president's primary briefer on its path and the response effort, but by the weekend those duties had been taken over by Brown's boss -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Also, while Brown was very visibly by the president's side during Bush's first on-the-ground visit to the hurricane zone last week, he remained behind the scenes -- with Chertoff out front -- when the president went back on Monday.

Is this anyway for a government to behave in what s supposed to be an open and responsive democracy? We shouldn't have to read tea leaves and speculate about what's going on inside our government.

(4:00pm): Getting the water level down should help those engaged in recovering the dead:

Jerry Apodaca, 42, a prison guard from Las Cruces, N.M. ... is among hundreds of people in the New Orleans area who for weeks will wade through practically sub-human conditions to look for bloated bodies, a task for which their civilian jobs gave them little or no preparation.

"Mold, sewage, oil, feces floating around - it's just nasty out there," Apodaca said recently as his squad rummaged through the ruins of Port Sulphur, a fishing community in southern Plaquemines Parish that was virtually flattened by Katrina's 130 mile per hour winds and a storm surge estimated to have topped 20 feet.

"They told us we would be doing security. And now we're doing this," said Staff Sgt. Manuel Almanza, a heavy equipment operator from Deming, N.M.

Their contingent, along with similar teams made up of professional rescuers and civilian volunteers, is charged with inspecting every house in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, two of the area's hardest-hit communities.

It's an ugly assignment. If a home's front door is locked, they must break it down and then go room to room sniffing for the tell-tale stench of the decomposing dead. Where the wreckage from another house blocks the door, they have to climb in a window.

They pry their way into vehicles and boats, sift through the wreckage of businesses.

The task comes with plenty of health hazards. Entire communities in the area remain under 3 feet or more of putrid water, and much of the rest is covered in a toxic slush of mud, oil and raw sewage.

"You can't see to the bottom of the water, so you're taking little baby steps," Apodaca said. "All the debris in the water, it's like an obstacle course."
For his unit, none of those obstacles thus far has been a human body. The place is pervaded by the stench of rotten flesh, but so far they have discovered only the carcasses of about 24 dogs.

(4:45pm): There are reports, so far not picked up by the mainstream media, that armed private mercenaries are patrolling the streets in New Orleans:

Heavily armed paramilitary mercenaries from the Blackwater private security firm, infamous for their work in Iraq, are openly patrolling the streets of New Orleans. Some of the mercenaries say they have been "deputized" by the Louisiana governor; indeed some are wearing gold Louisiana state law enforcement badges on their chests and Blackwater photo identification cards on their arms.


A spokesperson for the Homeland Security Department, Russ Knocke, told the Washington Post he knows of no federal plans to hire Blackwater or other private security. "We believe we've got the right mix of personnel in law enforcement for the federal government to meet the demands of public safety." he said.

But in an hour-long conversation with several Blackwater mercenaries, we heard a different story. The men we spoke with said they are indeed on contract with the Department of Homeland Security and the Louisiana governor's office and that some of them are sleeping in camps organized by Homeland Security in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. One of them wore a gold Louisiana state law enforcement badge and said he had been "deputized" by the governor. They told us they not only had authority to make arrests but also to use lethal force. We encountered the Blackwater forces as we walked through the streets of the largely deserted French Quarter.

[Thanks to Susan]

(5:15pm): Looking a little further ahead, on Angry Bear Kash has an estimate of how the cost of Katrina will add to our ballooning federal deficit:

(Mon 3:10am): The EPA says the water is less dangerous than had been feared:

New test results released by the federal Environmental Protection Agency Sunday evening confirm that toxic chemicals contained in floodwaters in New Orleans and Metairie are in concentrations too small to be an immediate threat to humans.

But so much saltwater has entered the city that it could be very difficult to grow a lawn for a very long time, according to Wilma Subra, an independent chemist from New Iberia who often advises environmental groups.

Meanwhile, Hugh Kaufman, the EPA policy analyst, seems to have disappeared from view.

I've had discussions with folks who are concerned about the water in the bowl that is New Orleans being pumped into Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River without being in some way treated or filtered for toxins and contaminents, so that that the "toxic stew" (however toxic it is) is being introduced into relatively cleaner waterways. I understand their concerns, but I think their expectations are unrealistic, since I don't believe that the treatments required are simple to put in place at all. I don't think it's a matter of dumping some chlorine into the water, I think that seperating out complex hydrocarbons is a complicated and difficult thing to do, something that can't be slapped into place on a moment's notice, and requires fairly large installations to be effective. (I may be wrong about this, and would appreciate being corrected if I am.)

If I'm right about that, that treatment or filtering isn't possible, then the choice is between pumping out New Orleans and contaminating the surrouding waterways, or leaving the water in the New Orleans bowl to become more dangerous with time. It's exactly these types of hard choices that Lee Hamilton, Democratic vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission, was talking about the other day, the kind that are necessary to make, but difficult to get politicians to commit to.

In this case, the right choice is clear: pump the water. Both the Lake and the River have some semblence of a cleaning system, and even though they will undoubtedly be overwhelmed by the out-pumped flood water, it's better to have it out, where a certain amount of cleaning can take place naturally, than to leave it to fester in New Orleans, where it will grow steadily more toxic, and act as an impediment to rescue, recovery and rebuilding. It's not until the flood water is out that the potable water delivery system will be able to be repaired, and repair of the electrical grid is also held up by the extent of the flooding.

If we're lucky (and we haven't had am awful lot of luck connected with Katrina as of yet), then Kaufman will be wrong about the water, and it'll be less toxic than we thought, and more dangerous to plants than to humans. Since so many people spent so much time in it, I surely hope that's the case.

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/11/2005 04:25:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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