In a herculean task that could take months, engineers struggled to pump out the flooded city Tuesday, and the filthy waters were dropping noticeably. "I'm starting to see rays of light," the mayor said. AP reported
The pumping began after the Army Corps of Engineers used rocks and sandbags over the Labor Day weekend to finally plug the 200-foot gap that let water spill into New Orleans and swamp 80 percent of the bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
On Tuesday, the Corps said the area under water had fallen to about 60 percent.
"I'm starting to see water levels much lower than I've seen," Mayor Ray Nagin said after surveying his city from the air. "Even in areas where the water was as high as the rooftops, I started to see parts of the buildings."
Still, he warned of the horrors that are likely to be revealed when the waters recede. "It's going to be awful and it's going to wake the nation up again," the mayor predicted, a day after saying the death toll in the city could reach 10,000.
Walter Baumy, a Corps manager in charge of the engineering job, said it will take 24 to 80 days to drain the city.
Exactly how long the job will take depends on a number of factors. Among other things, the condition of the pumps -- especially whether they were submerged and damaged -- is not yet fully known, the Corps said. Also, the water is full of debris, and while there are screens on the pumps, it may be necessary to stop and clean them from time to time.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, began sending paratroopers from the Army's storied 82nd Airborne Division to New Orleans to use small boats, including inflatable Zodiac craft, to launch a new search-and-rescue effort in flooded sections of the city. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, division commander, said about 5,000 paratroopers would be in place by Tuesday.
Boat rescue crews and a caravan of law enforcement vehicles from around the country also searched for people to rescue.
"In some cases, it's real easy. They're sitting on the porch with their bags packed," said Joe Youdell of the Kentucky Air National Guard. "But some don't want to leave and we can't force them."
Nagin warned: "We have to convince them to leave. It's not safe here. There is toxic waste in the water and dead bodies and mosquitoes and gas. We are pumping about a million dollars' worth a gas a day in the air. Fires have been started and we don't have running water."
Nagin said some dry sections of the city may have running water within 36 hours. The system needs to be flushed out before that can happen, he said.
Early Tuesday, fire broke out at a big house in the city's historic Garden District -- a neighborhood with lots of antebellum mansions. National Guardsmen cordoned off the area as firefighters battled the blaze by helicopter. In all, firefighters battled at least four major fires in New Orleans by midafternoon.
At the same time, the effort to get the evacuees back on their feet continued on several fronts.
Patrick Rhode, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said evacuees would receive debit cards so that they could begin buying necessary personal items. He said the agency was going from shelter to shelter to make sure that evacuees received cards quickly and that the paperwork usually required would be reduced or eliminated.
"We're eliminating as much red tape as humanly possible," Rhode said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
The Air Force late Monday concluded its huge airlift of elderly and serious ill patients from New Orleans' major airport. A total of 9,788 patients and other evacuees were evacuated by air from the New Orleans area.
Local officials bitterly expressed frustration with the federal government's sluggish response as the tragedy unfolded.
"Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area. And bureaucracy needs to stand trial before Congress today," Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, said on CBS' "The Early Show."
"So I'm asking Congress, please investigate this now. Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot."
In New Orleans, Deputy Police Superintendent W.J. Riley estimated that fewer than 10,000 people were left in the city. Some simply did not want to leave their homes, while others were hanging back to loot or commit other crimes, authorities said.
The mayor said the city had the authority to force residents to evacuate but didn't say if it was taking that step. He denied reports that the city will no longer hand out water to people who refuse to leave.
The leader of troops patrolling New Orleans declared the city largely free of the lawlessness that plagued it in the days following the hurricane. He lashed out at suggestions that search-and-rescue operations were being stymied by random gunfire and lawlessness.
"Go on the streets of New Orleans -- it's secure," Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said to a reporter. "Have you been to New Orleans? Did anybody accost you?"
In neighboring Jefferson Parish, some of its 460,000 residents got a chance to briefly see their flooded homes, and to scoop up soaked wedding pictures and other cherished mementos.
"I won't be getting inside today unless I get some scuba gear," said Jack Rabito, a 61-year-old bar owner whose one-story home had water lapping at the gutters.