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Water turns deadly after Katrina

MERAUX, La.—The Coast Guard guys stand way back from the water.

They watch two other guardsmen pilot a boat down what used to be a street in this small town east of New Orleans. Somebody called in with a rumor. There might be people back in there.

So the guardsmen steer their boat around sunken cars and power poles. The guys on the bank guard the trucks. They keep their boots dry.

The water smells like sulfur. It shines red and green from the oil on the surface. Scum and foam wash up to the edge, over the carcass of a dog.

"I never thought I would get tired of the water," one of the guardsmen said. "But I'm sick of this (bleep)ing stuff. Just suck it all out and get out of here."

This part of the world used to be so proud of its water. The rivers and bays and bayous cradled every city and town, like a warm bath waiting in the next room.

But now, after Katrina, the water is a monster.

It drowned multitudes, and left many more stranded to starve.

It destroyed homes and buildings in the untold thousands.

It is steeped in sewage and bacteria and death.

"The water is everywhere," said Sheriff Jack Stephens of St. Bernard Parish. "You can't get away from it. It's soaked up into everything."

More than a week after the storm, the water is still deadly.

At least four people have died from illnesses related to tainted water. Doctors suspect a virus that's related to cholera.

Doctors have treated thousands of storm survivors for dysentery and infections.

Government scientists tested the New Orleans floodwaters for sewage the other day. They quit running the tests when the levels came up 10 times higher than the safe amount.

Officials in another parish sent out crop-dusters to spray for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes breed in standing water, and standing water now covers hundreds of square miles.

Panicked callers to radio stations wonder how to get black mold off drywall. Carpenters call in with advice: Rip it out to the studs and start over.

Before Katrina, the water was wonderful.

You could drive the 24-mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain down into New Orleans. You could walk to the promenade in the French Quarter and baptize your feet in the Mississippi River.

You could leave the Crescent City and head out to the swamps, where tourists skimmed the shallow water in airboats. Or you could go down into the bayous and paddle slow under the Spanish moss.

If you went far enough south, you'd run into the sea.

The water gave up oysters and catfish and bass. It was the highway for freighters and shrimp boats. It was the reason people settled here in the first place and the reason so many stayed.

Now the water has betrayed its own.

In Plaquemines Parish, a 20-pound catfish is washed up on a railroad bed. Thousands of minnows are scattered on the ground around it, turning brittle in the sun.

A few miles away, on the bank of the Mississippi River, four barges are wedged in the trees. To the north, on Interstate 510, an oil-slicked cottonmouth wriggles out of the flooded passing lane.

The pumps shoot the filthy water out of New Orleans—a job that will take weeks—and there's no way to clean up the water.

For now, the job has to be getting people out, and counting the bodies, and figuring out some way for the survivors to make new lives.

The water is something to be pumped away, bailed out, flung over the wall.

Better not to think about it now.

Better not to wonder if all this beautiful water is now a dead sea.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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