HUNDREDS were feared dead last night, tens of thousands were homeless
and flood waters submerged most of New Orleans after much of the US Gulf Coast was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, set to
become the costliest storm to have hit the US.
As President Bush declared major disaster areas in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, low-lying New
Orleans faced catastrophic destruction, with flood waters pouring into the city through levees breached by the storm. More
than 80 per cent of the city was submerged last night, with the mayor talking of bodies floating in the streets and the authorities
declaring martial law.
Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi, said that the death toll in just one Mississippi county
was as high as 80, after a massive surge of sea water swept through the coastal town of Biloxi. More than 30 were killed after
a beachside apartment was destroyed, while the town’s Grand Casino was swept across the US 90 highway.
A. J. Holloway, the Mayor of Biloxi said: “This is our tsunami.” Between Gulfport and Biloxi,
streets and homes were flooded six miles inland.
Thousands of devastated homes and communities remained cut off from rescue workers, who spent the day
using axes and even shotguns to smash their way into attics to pull terrified residents to safety. Officials said that hundreds
of people were missing, and predicted that the death toll could climb quickly.
There were two deaths confirmed in Alabama, as rescuers across the region used boats and helicopters
to ferry people to safety.
“The devastation down there is just enormous,” Mr Barbour added. “We know there is
a lot of coast that we have not been able to get to. It looks like it is a very bad disaster in terms of human life.”
The American Red Cross said that it was starting the largest relief operation in its history, as across
the Gulf Coast, hit by Katrina and its 150mph winds on Monday morning, people clung to rooftops, thousands of trees lay uprooted
and cars and sailboats sat crumpled, having been flung about like toys.
In Mobile, Alabama, where much of the business district lay submerged, an offshore oil drilling rig
was ripped from its mooring and sat embedded in a road bridge.
Marty Evans, the American Red Cross president, said that 75,000 people were being housed in nearly
240 shelters across the region. Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that it was preparing
to house “at least tens of thousands of victims for literally months on end”. He said that veteran agency officials
were reporting some of the worst destruction they had seen.
More than 1.3 million people in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama were without power last night. The
authorities said that it could be two months before electricity is restored to everyone. Early estimates by insurers put the
property and casualty costs of Katrina at anything up to $26 billion, (£15 billion) which would make it more expensive than
the previous record-setting storm, Hurricane Andrew, which caused $21 billion in insured losses in 1992.
The White House said that Mr Bush would cut short his summer holiday and return to Washington from
his Texas ranch today to help to monitor efforts to assist Katrina’s victims. He had been scheduled to return to the
capital on Friday night.
“This morning, our hearts and prayers are with our fellow citizens along the Gulf Coast,”
Mr Bush said. “We know that many are anxious to return to their homes. It’s not possible at this moment. We have
a lot of work to do.”
Thad Cochran, Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will oversee the disbursement
of relief funds, said: “This is going to be the most expensive natural disaster that’s hit the United States in
history. It’s really quite phenomenal. We’re going to do whatever is needed to help the people and local governments
recover from this catastrophic event.”
The Pentagon activated thousands of National Guardsmen in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and dispatched
emergency co-ordinators to provide communications equipment, search and rescue operations, and medical teams.
In Biloxi, Harvey Jackson described the harrowing moment that he lost grip of his wife, whom he fears
With his house splitting in two, and flood waters rising, Mr Jackson said: “I held her hand as
tight as I could. She told me, ‘You can’t hold me.’ She told me to take care of the kids and grandkids .
. . we ain’t got nowhere to go. I’m lost. That’s all I had.”
Officials in Biloxi and New Orleans said that looting was a major problem. In Gulfport the storm swept
boats on to the city’s streets. The tidal surge caused by the hurricane destroyed major road bridges to three coastal
Rodney McGilvary, Biloxi’s assistant police chief, said: “We will be trying to determine
a total fatality count, if we ever have one.”