Evacuation picks up speed, with growing cooperation

Knight Ridder Newspapers

NEW ORLEANS — Block after block, door by door, eye to eye, police officers and soldiers edged closer Thursday to extracting the last holdouts from this dying city. Authorities did not wield brute strength — yet — but they employed considerable powers of persuasion.

“The soldier talked to me, and I’m sick, and he told me it would be best if I left to get my treatment,” Dale Wolfe Noel, 68, of the Algiers section of New Orleans said after rescuers brought her to a makeshift first-aid center. “They’re trying to get me some place good.”

More people seemed motivated to leave, having heard the term “mandatory evacuation,” and fewer than 10,000 people remained in a metropolis that was home to 485,000 before Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed it.

But some still resisted, and their stubbornness imperiled their lives. They were surrounded by sewage-contaminated floods and sporadic fires, and they had no access to fresh food or pure drinking water.

Thousands were feared dead. Those searching for survivors often found bodies floating in the floods, lying on broken highways or decomposing in previously hidden corners of the city, adding to the health risk and horror-movie reality.

“I can tell you there have been thousands of bodies,” said Dr. Juliette Saussy, director of the city’s Emergency Medical Service.

In Washington, meanwhile, lawmakers authorized more help for the nearly 1 million people displaced — many forever — by Katrina.

Congress approved a $51.8 billion special appropriation for disaster relief, just a fraction of the expected ultimate cost to restore lives and rebuild bridges, highways and other vital elements of the region’s infrastructure.

President Bush pledged to help victims cut through red tape to receive governmental assistance, including $2,000 debit cards for each displaced family. He said that more than 400,000 families already have applied for federal aid.

“We have much more work to do,” Bush said during a Thursday afternoon address to the nation. “But the people that have been hurt by this storm know that — need to know that — the government is going to be with you for the long haul.”

His vice president, Dick Cheney, visited Gulfport, Miss., Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans, publicly viewing the devastation and privately meeting with managers of the relief effort.