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US Military Ready to Help in New Orleans Evacuation

The U.S. military says its forces that are helping deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans are ready to help local officials evacuate the city, as ordered by the mayor. But a senior general says the soldiers will not go beyond what they are allowed to do by law.

Military and civilian crews in helicopters, boats and trucks continue to evacuate people who want to get out of New Orleans. But some people do not want to go, in defiance of a new order from the city's mayor. The concern is that the city is dangerous, with floodwaters polluted with all sorts of garbage, human waste and even dead bodies. In addition, natural gas lines are broken and fires have broken out in several parts of the city, with firefighters hampered by flooded roads and a lack of electrical power.

But some people do not want to leave the city, insisting on staying at home in spite of the dangers, and in spite of the mayor's order. On Wednesday, the superintendent of the New Orleans police department, Eddie Compass, said forced evacuations have not yet begun, but people will be forced to leave if necessary.

"We have thousands of people who want to voluntarily evacuate at this time,” he said. “We are using our resources right now to evacuate those who want to be evacuated. Once all the voluntary evacuations have taken place, then we will concentrate our efforts and our forces to mandatorily evacuate individuals."

The police superintendent says if he diverted forces now from helping voluntary evacuees to find and force other people to leave New Orleans, some of those who want to get out would die while waiting for help. He also says the minimal necessary force will be used when the time comes to force people to go.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Joseph Inge, the deputy commander of the U.S. Northern Command, which is providing the forces for the military part of the relief effort, says active-duty soldiers will not get involved in any forced evacuations.

"We are told there are some 900 policemen in New Orleans,” he said. “We would certainly see forcing evacuation as a first priority for them to work. If the authorities in the state of Louisiana chose to use their National Guard, in a state status, that would certainly be permissible and their call. When this turns into a law enforcement issue, which we perceive forced evacuation is, regular troops would not be used."

General Inge was referring to the difference between the National Guard, a reserve military force under the control of state governors, and the active-duty military. Under U.S. law, governors routinely use the Guard troops for local law enforcement in emergency situations, and that is being done in several states in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But it would be a much bigger step to use active-duty troops for that purpose. Officials are sensitive about the distinction, which is rooted in the U.S. constitution. Active-duty troops can only have authority over civilians in the United States if the state governor asks for such help, or if the president orders it. There has only been one such presidential order since the U.S. civil war in the 1860s, when troops were used to force racial integration at the University of Mississippi.

So the active-duty troops involved in the current relief effort are rescuing people, delivering food and other supplies and providing medical care, transportation and logistical help, while local police and National Guard troops under the state governors are handling law enforcement and will be responsible for forced evacuations if that becomes necessary.