Rescue and recovery efforts continue in New Orleans, devastated just over two weeks ago by Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed.
The once-vibrant city is almost empty now, as residents have sought refuge in shelters and temporary homes elsewhere, far from the debris and water-filled streets. Military, law enforcement and other relief personnel are here in force, however.
"We are here to help our country out," says Cody, an Oregon Army National guardsman as he stands with his humvee unit, waiting for a canal drawbridge to open over a sludge-choked river channel. "We are just here to help with the civilians and assist any local law enforcement and authorities in the area to try to restore order."
Cody says the work brings back memories of his service overseas in Iraq. "It seems sort of similar in a way just because of the chaos theory [sic] to it." But he says conditions in New Orleans have improved. "It's not chaotic as far as what is going on right now. Chaos struck the area and it's a reminder of what you've been through."
Police officers from every state are in the area to help with local law enforcement. Inspector Thomas Graham is chief of the New York Police Department Disorder Unit. He says his role here has been to take over some of the non-critical jobs that local police had been burdened with.
"It frees up officers to do other things. My supply chain for my own people is taking care of hospitals with ice and trying to run errands, taking care of shut-ins out in Jefferson Parish, where we're also patrolling. So we are trying to help out, that is all we're trying to do," he says.
While most of the city has been evacuated, not everyone has agreed to go, or been able to leave. "Today we are out here doing water rescues down here, downtown," says Mark Shoffa of the California State task force. "We still go out to a lot of houses and we are searching houses, checking, looking for any victims or people staying in houses still alive, to get them out."
Mr. Shoffa says he has found a few dead bodies while searching for survivors. Experts say the death toll from Hurricane Katrina may be lower than first predicted. Still, that is small comfort to a clean-up worker named Tray Payshon and his crew.
"We happened to be moving the muck away and we saw a whole bunch of cars and there was a dead body laying face down in the yard, all swollen up, yellow in color, sun-baked, dogs everywhere barking, starving to death," Mr. Payshon says. "[There is] military presence everywhere. People with gloves on, breathing stagnated, funky water. It just stinks."
Part of that stink is toxic
- river water mixed with fuels, sewage and other debris. Federal environmental scientists are assessing the human health hazard.
Meanwhile, trucker Roy Curry has been disposing of oceans of muck in the streets of the Baywater District. "We're just getting it off the street in case we get some rain, so it won't flood the area again," he says, adding they have already made a lot of progress.
There is drudgery as well as heroism in the massive clean-up effort. U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Lawrence Lane is leading a crew to clean up the waterlogged and rotting debris both inside and outside the Saint Bernard's Parish Courthouse. "Basically ripping anything out that has water damage, making piles so they can pick it up and put it in dumpsters," he says.
It's just a start to the massive clean-up of New Orleans that lies ahead, but as Officer Lane says, "You have to start somewhere." That's a philosophy shared by thousands of workers and residents in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in American history.