NEW ORLEANS — Restoring one of the nation’s major cities will be no easy task — especially when its citizens are dispersed all over the country, oil spills are 80 percent the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster — and after the highest spike in gun sales since Sept. 11, 2001.

At the Joint Operations Command Center or “the JOC” at the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station in New Orleans, troops from the Louisiana and West Virginia National Guard are working hand-in-hand 24 hours a day to make sure they are completely up-to-date on any and all issues that could affect rebuilding operations in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, said Brig. Gen. John Barnette of the West Virginia National Guard.

At regular briefings at the JOC, troops are brought up to speed on issues such as infrastructure status, security concerns, weather forecasts — anything that could aid or hinder their work. These are done day and night.

Upon my arrival in New Orleans as an embedded reporter with the West Virginia National Guard, we were briefed on the situation the entire state, particularly New Orleans, was facing — as well as our National Guard troops.

Rebuilding New Orleans will take more than just a few hammers and nails.

After Hurricane Katrina struck, topping levees — then causing them to break — the city was dealt a double whammy with Hurricane Rita. Rita reflooded the city, flooding several areas that were spared by Katrina, according to Brig. Gen. Hunt Downer of the Louisiana National Guard.

As of the first of October, electricity was on in about 70 percent of New Orleans’ Central Business District, Barnette said. The numbers are slightly less in the French Quarter. There is basically none in the surrounding areas. The first waves of residents were arriving back in the city just before Hurricane Rita struck, but now, they are gradually starting to return, depending on where they live and how much damage those areas incurred.

In the rebuilding process, the Central Business District and the French Quarter remain the top priority for the city, Barnette said.

“Right now, they’re trying to reopen as fast as they can. The Central Business District and the French Quarter — that drives the economic base, but they’re also the highest points in the city,” he said. “They got less water. When I say that, the French Quarter is only 14 feet below sea level. It’s like a bowl with two lips on it. You’ve got the Corps of Engineers levees, which are broke, and all these internal levees, which are kind of the safety net. They broke all over the place as well.

“In terms of cleaning up, it’s so massive, the only things that have been done are the Central Business District and the French Quarter. Other than that, nothing has been addressed yet. It’s just too big.”

At this time, more than 100,000 people remain in evacuee shelters, and the progress in finding decent temporary homes is slow, according to a media briefing from the West Virginia National Guard. Two weeks ago, the American Red Cross moved 70,000 people into hotels. The Federal Emergency Management Agency delivers about 500 mobile homes daily. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has distributed $625 million to 265,000 households for temporary apartments.

Katrina caused more than 300 oil spills, said Capt. James Fletcher of the West Virginia National Guard’s 2/19 Special Forces Group out of Kenova. Seven of these were declared major. Not only were there oil refineries in Katrina’s path, but gas stations were in the way as well. Gasoline and oil also came from flooded automobiles. This was a major hazard during search and rescue missions.

Pumping stations, designed to get water out of the below-sea-level city when rains come, were destroyed during the storm. Only one-third were functional after Katrina, according to the National Guard.

Hurricane Katrina affected 90,000 square miles of land — equal to the United Kingdom in size, according to the Guard. An estimated 1.3 million citizens are displaced, and an estimated 125,000 will not return — leading to a 2.8 percent population decline. That equals seven years of population growth.

As of now, the death toll in Louisiana is estimated to be between 923 and 932. Only half of the bodies have been identified, according to the Guard. One body was found floating outside a nursing home. More than 1,100 lives have been lost to Katrina nationwide, making it the third most dangerous storm in history — at this time.

Those who survived the storm and are returning to the city face serious health risks — the worst being contaminated water, mold and the dusty sediment left behind. The Environmental Protection Agency has found high levels of bacteria, fecal contamination, arsenic and lead in floodwaters. Levels of diesel and oil range organics exceeded the Louisiana standards for residential exposures by 10 times.

Twenty-three-thousand homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina remain to be searched, according to the Guard. Telephone companies are unwilling to give outage time estimates, which could hinder business recovery.

Cleanup and recovery for the city is estimated to cost $1.5 billion.

The city of New Orleans is financially crippled. There is virtually no tax revenue, and 3,000 layoffs — 40 percent of the city’s workforce — have been announced. Several residential areas are virtually, if not totally, deserted, according to the Guard.

Across the nation, gasoline prices surged to record highs, and the blame was placed on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. According to the National Guard, these storms caused more damage to oil rigs than any other storm in history. Fifty-two platforms were lost, and 58 were damaged. Three mobile offshore drilling rigs sank and 16 were damaged. Rigs cost $90 million to $550 million to construct, and take two to five years to be operational.

Louisiana is the second-largest seafood producer with $2.6 billion annual income. Losses from both storms could reach more than $2 billion. The southwest Louisiana sugarcane crop has been devastated by Rita, due to thousands of acres being underwater.

These were not the only ones severely damaged — all business took a major hit. Forty-one percent of all Louisiana businesses — 81,000 estimated — were lost.

When New Orleans residents return home, they are more likely to come home armed. According to the National Guard, gun sales in northeast Louisiana have increased — particularly short-barrel shotguns and all types of handguns. This is attributed to the New Orleans residents preparing for their returns home. This is the biggest gun sale spike since Sept. 11, 2001.

Residents are gradually being allowed to return to the city — but conditions still remain harsh. Some areas of the city, such as the Ninth Ward, are only open to residents on a “look and leave” basis, according to the Guard. Residents, if they return, are only allowed to move within their own zip codes or parishes.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin reports water is suitable for showers, but it must be boiled before drinking. The water must be flushed 15 minutes before bathing as well. Residents are under a curfew from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. Reports of curfew problems are limited. They are advised to enter homes and businesses at their own risk and that emergency services are limited. Getting tetanus shots before entering the city is advised. Several traffic signals do not work.

In St. Bernard Parish, there is no telephone service, power or sanitation service, the Guard reported. They are estimating that 30 percent of power will be restored by mid-October. Residents are allowed to return, but they must be self-sufficient. The government has no sufficient life-sustaining supplies to support the public. They are advising residents to consume or cook with only bottled water.

Sewage is not being pumped into the Mississippi River at this time — but it may have to be done in addition to pumping sewage into trucks and transporting it to wastewater treatment plants.


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