Katrina Relief Efforts Ramp Up as Death Toll Rises

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 1, 2005
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Dozens of federal disaster relief teams have been moved into Gulf Coast states that were blasted by Hurricane Katrina.

Meanwhile, authorities in New Orleans suspended the evacuation of hurricane refugees that have been housed at the city's Superdome.

CNN and other news outlets reported this morning that shots were fired at helicopters trying to evacuate the refugees. National Guard troops and police were trying to regain control of the scene.

Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast with peak winds of 140 miles an hour (225 kilometers an hour) and a storm surge of at least 20 feet (6 meters). The storm, which struck early Monday morning, devastated the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida.

Dean Cushman, a public information officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Dallas, Texas, said 39 medical assistance teams have been sent to Louisiana. Each team includes about 30 members.

The medical teams will establish mobile hospitals, similar to those used by the military, to treat victims.

FEMA also has sent four emergency mortuary teams to Louisiana, said Natalie Rule, a FEMA public information officer in Washington, D.C. Rule did not know how many fatalities the mortuary teams were expecting to encounter.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has said thousands may have died in his city.

The official death toll has been steadily rising as rescue workers reach areas along the Gulf Coast that were stricken by the storm. As of Thursday morning more than 180 deaths had been reported.

If the death toll is as high as officials fear, Hurricane Katrina will become the deadliest U.S. hurricane since 1928. That year, a powerful hurricane swept across Florida's Lake Okeechobee and pushed a wall of water through several small lakeside towns, killing at least 2,000 residents.

Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco ordered a complete evacuation of New Orleans Tuesday. The city of about 500,000 is below sea level and is surrounded by the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. Canals and waterways also crisscross the city.

Until Hurricane Katrina struck, the city was protected from flooding by a series of levees. But the levees started giving way Tuesday, prompting the evacuation order.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on its Web site that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is trying to seal several breaks in canal levees in the city.

Rule said the FEMA medical teams were being assisted by hundreds of volunteer doctors, nurses, and other medical workers who have come to the stricken area to help.

Survivors will be treated for injuries they sustained during the storm, but medical personnel will probably also be treating people for high blood pressure, asthma, and other ailments caused by days of stress and dehydration, she said.

In addition, FEMA has sent teams of veterinarians and mental health specialists to the Gulf Coast, Rule said. The veterinarians will treat storm victims pets and livestock, as well as search-and-rescue dogs being used to find survivors, she said.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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