After days of desperate waiting that magnified their despair, the survivors of Hurricane Katrina greeted on Saturday military convoys arriving in the flooded city to confront rampant lawlessness and bring desperately needed food, water and medical care.
Criticised at home and abroad for his administration’s slow response to one of America’s worst natural catastrophes, President George Bush acknowledged the results of government aid efforts were “not acceptable” and said more help was on the way.
But fear and bitterness still pervaded the Southern city founded by the French in 1718 and long celebrated for its vibrant culture and lifestyle.
Thousands were feared dead after Katrina smashed into the US Gulf Coast on Saturday.
Corpses decaying in the sun and uncontrolled looting presented images once thought unimaginable in the world’s richest and most powerful country.
Survivors remaining in the city struggled to get out and recalled frightful stories of murder, rape and hunger.
Blanco: The army has restored
Visiting New Orleans after touring storm-hit Mississippi and Alabama, Bush pledged New Orleans would recover its lost grandeur, but admitted recovery would require attention “for a long period of time”.
He signed a $10.5 billion relief package for Gulf Coast areas hit by Katrina.
Bush and Congress have described the measure as a down payment on what will be a larger amount of money arriving in coming weeks.
At a news briefing in the state capital, Baton Rouge, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco said she presented a shopping list of needs to Bush that included the return of a Louisiana-based combat team from Iraq to help with disaster relief at home.
“We have never needed them so much,” she said.
Describing the situation in New Orleans as “still very tenuous”, Blanco said: “I have heard that people are feeling the military presence. There’s still some danger because power’s not up and the nights are dark.
“We have a lot to go through before we get comfortable.”
“Shame, shame on America. We were put to the test, and we have failed”
Blanco said the remaining survivors taking shelter at the city’s convention centre were expected to be picked up on Saturday, and that the Superdome, whose deteriorating living conditions became a nightmare for evacuees, was nearly empty.
Blanco welcomed the arrival of National Guard troops on Friday and said she expected about 7000 additional arrivals over the next few days.
“They brought a sense of order and peace and it was a beautiful sight to see that we are ramping up,” she said.
She also praised the work of engineers and crews rebuilding the embankments that burst in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and swamped the city, which mostly lies below sea level.
“This solid, visible project symbolised the first ray of real hope for the people who have lost so much,” she said. “It means the beginning of the end of the nightmare.”
Work crews gained control over one of the breaches in the embankment and expected to have another major gap closed on Saturday, Brigadier-General Robert Crear told a briefing.
“We’re looking at anywhere from 36 to 80 days to being done,” Crear said.
Lake Pontchartrain, whose waters poured into New Orleans after the break in the embankments, was receding further, officials said.
Thousands are feared dead and
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said nearly 60 nations had offered help for New Orleans and other afflicted Gulf Coast areas.
Offers came from long-time allies as well as critics of the US government, including Cuba and Venezuela.
Cuban President Fidel Castro, calling a “truce” in Havana‘s ideological enmity with Washington, offered to fly 1100 doctors to Houston with 26 tonnes of medicine to treat people in the disaster area.
Despite the stepped-up government relief efforts, questions and criticism lingered over why it took days to arrive.
With many of the victims being poor and black, the disaster underscored the lingering racial and class divide in the US south and across the country.
Black leaders were sharp in their condemnation of the government’s slow response.
“We cannot allow it to be said by history that the difference between those who lived and those who died in this great storm and flood of 2005 was nothing more than poverty, age or skin colour,” said Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and former head of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Shame, shame on America. We were put to the test, and we have failed,” said Representative Diane Watson, a black Democrat from California.