Latest News

Officials confounded by hurricane victims who don't want to move

NEW ORLEANS—Authorities struggling to manage the largest relocation of Americans in modern history collided Wednesday with an unexpected obstacle: resistance from many of the evacuees.

In Houston, a plan to move evacuees from the Astrodome to two cruise ships in Galveston, Texas, was canceled for lack of interest, officials said, forcing the government to search for evacuees from other areas to move into the ocean liners' cabins.

In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin authorized force to remove an estimated 10,000 people still living amid floodwaters, which were receding but also becoming increasingly polluted with oil, sewage, bacteria and life-threatening toxins.

Four people may have died from rare bacterial infections caused by contaminated water that entered open wounds, federal health experts reported. Initial tests of New Orleans' water detected levels of diarrhea-causing bacteria far exceeding safe levels.

Nevertheless, the rescue squads that patrolled deeper into New Orleans—as well as relief workers in Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia—found themselves confounded by the reluctance of many Hurricane Katrina victims to leave their homes or move to distant shelters.

Five planes from West Virginia sent to ferry evacuees from Texas returned home without passengers. Flights expected to carry 1,000 evacuees to Ohio were canceled. Cots stood empty at the D.C. Armory in the nation's capital.

Throughout the Gulf Coast region, people decided that they preferred the familiar and the close to home—regardless of how awful it had become—to the unknown and the far away. In some cases, bureaucratic foul-ups and lack of coordination also played a role.

"Once you put yourself in the hands of the government, you could end up in Utah," said Michael O'Donoghue, 64, a holdout in New Orleans' Lower Garden District.

Ed Conley, a liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the agency has no additional plans to transport people to shelters in other states.

"There were several states that offered opportunities for people to go via plane and bus," he said. "There just weren't any takers. We can't force people to leave."

The relocation difficulties flared as officials turned their attention to other problems and, in some cases, to solutions:

_Federal officials prepared to distribute debit cards worth $2,000 each to displaced storm victims to offset the cost of food, clothing, gasoline and other commodities.

Michael Brown, FEMA's embattled director, said the plan would "empower hurricane survivors to really start rebuilding their lives."

_Katrina could cost as many as 400,000 U.S. jobs and slash economic growth by as much as 1 percentage point, the Congressional Budget Office reported.

_Repair crews inspected bridges and roads wrecked by Katrina, including 90 bridges in southern Louisiana alone. Contractors were hired to clear debris-blocked roads.

_Inch by inch, flood levels continued to drop in New Orleans as more pumps came back to life, but engineers still faced a Herculean task. Only 23 of the city's 148 pumps were working. One major pumping station, however, was draining 2,000 cubic feet of water out of the city every second.

Though the mayor of New Orleans authorized force to evacuate those remaining, the priority for rescue crews was still searching for residents willing to leave but trapped.

"We have thousands of people who want to voluntarily evacuate at this time," Police Superintendent Eddie Compass said. "We're using our resources at this time to save those who want to be saved.

"Once the voluntary evacuation has taken place, we will concentrate our resources and our forces on the mandatory evacuation."

Representatives of the regular military and the National Guard said they had no plans to compel departures from the city.

In fact, Army Gen. Russel Honore, leader of the military task force, said his work in New Orleans differed dramatically from the operations he usually directs.

"We normally try to go break things," he said. "In this case, we're trying to fix things."

With Louisiana, Texas and other nearby states overwhelmed by the nearly 1 million people displaced by Katrina, officials in those states sought to place the overflow elsewhere—often in states far away and sometimes without the evacuees knowing where they were going.

In Washington, D.C., about 300 people ended up at the D.C. Armory, which was ready for at least 400.

Most were happy to be there, though several were surprised, having misunderstood an announcement: They thought their plane was headed to Dallas rather than Washington's Dulles airport.

"Is there any way to get back?" Melvin Taylor, 53, tears welling in his eyes, asked a reporter. "I've got two aunties, Rosemary Parker and Bernice Taylor, and some cousins I can't find. I don't like it here."

In many cases, relocation managers said, evacuees simply did not want to venture far from home, fearing that distance would further complicate their return to the lives they knew.

Sociological factors also played a role, experts said. Most evacuees were relatively poor, and many may never before have left their cities or even their neighborhoods. Thus, the prospect of starting life anew in a distant city was daunting—especially for families that are separated.

Mercelita Plessy of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward lost contact with her four children when they retreated to the Superdome shortly after the storm passed. Now, she's afraid to leave town.

"People say they're sending them to New Mexico, they're sending them to Texas, they're sending them to Georgia, Mississippi," she said. "Lord! How am I going to find my children?"

Officials in Philadelphia said last week that they were prepared to receive as many as 5,000 people, and 600 were expected earlier this week, but only 35 had arrived by midday Wednesday. Officials cited "logistical problems" and said some potential arrivals balked at leaving the Houston area.

In one innovative operation, Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines chartered three festively named ships—the Sensation, the Ecstasy and the Holiday_ to the federal government for use as floating shelters for the next six months.

The Sensation and the Ecstasy have been in Galveston since Monday, company spokesman Tim Gallagher said, but no evacuees boarded them. Potential passengers had so many questions that the company sent representatives into land-based shelters to explain the program.

In the end, said FEMA liaison Conley, the plan to move people from the Astrodome was canceled. Now, evacuees from elsewhere may be offered the cabins.

Gallagher said Carnival executives were flabbergasted when they learned of the evacuees' reluctance to board the ships.

"And then we started thinking about it and you begin to understand that probably a large proportion of these folks have no idea what a cruise ship is like," he said.

The Sensation and Ecstasy each can accommodate 2,050 people, two to a cabin. The Holiday, due in Mobile, Ala., on Thursday, can accommodate about 1,450 people, two to a cabin.

Bureaucratic breakdowns also were evident, including some that—in another context—might have been viewed as comical.

A plane full of evacuees twice failed to materialize at the Charleston International Airport in South Carolina on Tuesday. Even after local officials were told that the evacuees were there, they learned that the flight had landed in Charleston, W.Va.

"They say, `It's coming to Charleston, it's coming to Charleston,'" said Ron Osborne, South Carolina's director of emergency management. "Then they say, `We think it's Charleston, West Virginia.' We're having some problems."


(Adams of Knight Ridder's Washington bureau and Estwick of the Akron Beacon Journal reported from New Orleans, and Merzer of The Miami Herald reported from Washington.)

(Also contributing to this report were Erika Bolstad of The Miami Herald and Natalie Pompilio of the Philadelphia Inquirer in New Orleans; Melody McDonald and Sarah Bahari of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Baton Rouge, La.; John Moritz of the Star-Telegram in Austin, Texas; Susan Schrock of the Star-Telegram in Houston; Jacob Goldstein of The Miami Herald in Miami; and Banks Albach and Shannon McCaffery of Knight Ridder's Washington Bureau.)


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): KATRINA

Need to map

Related stories from McClatchy DC