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New Orleans Braces for Staggering Death Toll

Officials are preparing for thousands of dead

By Der Spiegel

09/05/05 -- -- Over the weekend, New Orleans's rescue operation turned into a recovery mission to find the city's dead. There are still no firm estimates for the exact death toll -- but most agree it will be out of the ballpark, at least for a natural disaster in an industrial nation. United States Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt is expecting that 1,000 to 2,000 body bags will be filled. But the city's deeply stressed out mayor, Ray Nagin, who infamously called on President George W. Bush to "fix this goddamned crisis," offered up a staggering figure in interviews.

Here's his equation: The city has close to 500,000 residents and if you conservatively assume that 5 percent remained in New Orleans after the flooding, the numbers could go through the roof. "So you probably have another 50-60,000 out there," he said. "You do the math, man, what do you think? Five percent is unreasonable? Ten percent? Twenty percent? It's going to be a big number." Louisiana's Republican Senator, David Vitter said he believes the figure will exceed 10,000.

The federal Secretary for Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, whose department appears to have failed its first major disaster test, declined to predict numbers. "I think we need to prepare the country for what's coming,'' Chertoff said. "What's going to happen when we de-water and remove the water from New Orleans is we're going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, got caught by the flood, people whose remains are going to be found in the streets. ... It is going to be about as ugly of a scene as I think you can imagine.''

Outrage over the government's initial anemic response to the disaster filled the pages of America's biggest newspapers this weekend. The critics run the gamut from liberal to conservative. New Orleans native daughter and author Anne Rice skewers the federal government for its paltry response to the crisis, and complains that Americans "turned your backs" on the Big Easy. Conservative writer David Brooks says people have lost faith in civic institutions and that what happened in New Orleans was the "moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield." New Yorker editor David Remnick writes of a historical failure by the president. "Over five days last week, from the onset of the hurricane on the Gulf Coast on Monday morning to his belated visit to the region on Friday, Bush's mettle was tested -- and he failed in almost every respect," he wrote.

But Bush's biggest slap in the face didn't come from the Democrats -- it came from his own party. "I think it puts into question all of the Homeland Security and Northern Command planning for the last four years, because if we can't respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we're prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?" asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of the Republicans. He then urged the president to put former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who showed remarkable strength in his swift reaction to 9/11, in charge of relief operations and restoring order in the South.

But is Bush to blame for denying funds for flood-control projects in New Orleans, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal alleged this week? Factcheck.org, a nonprofit project run by the Annenberg Center and the University of Pennsylvania has studied the facts and concluded that, yes, Bush has cut funds meant for flood projects but it refuses to "blame" or "absolve" the president. That's a job for Congress -- and a major probe is expected when the legislative body returns to work this autumn. Bloggers from the Bush-supporting "red states" are hot on the trail of their own theory -- a lot of them are linking to this photo of school buses left abandoned in a bus yard this week as evidence that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin failed to muster his own resources. You can follow these threads using Technorati's blog search engine or by viewing the latest posts on Instapundit.

Meanwhile ... the streets of New Orleans are dead silent, like a ghost town. The National Guard seems to have gotten most of the city under control, but there have been shootouts. The National Guard and workers with the Army Corps of Engineers were shot at and returned fire, killing four armed men. According to numerous newspaper reports, 200 members of New Orleans's 1,500-strong police force have walked off the job and two have committed suicide. To keep the remaining officers on the job, the mayor has offered family vacations to Las Vegas after order is restored and the city rebuilt.

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