03 September 2005

'MAD MAX' ON THE GULF COAST

Scotsman.com

Hungry, thirsty and scared - hurricane victims blame Bush

GETHIN CHAMBERLAIN
CHIEF NEWS CORRESPONDENT

A BELEAGUERED George Bush flew to the devastated Gulf Coast and met weeping survivors of Hurricane Katrina yesterday, as criticism of his handling of the disaster threatened to plunge his presidency into crisis.

The president has been accused of failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation facing the tens of thousands of people who have lost everything in the worst disaster to hit the United States since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Four days after the hurricane made landfall, with law and order breaking down, looters and armed gangs roaming the streets and reports of people dying while they waited for help, Mr Bush admitted: "Now we are in the darkest days."

The results were not acceptable, he said, but he vowed to get on top of the situation. Shortly after arriving in Mobile, Alabama, to be briefed on the relief efforts, he added: "We have a responsibility to help clear up this mess."

He urged Americans to do their bit to help. "Now is the time to love a neighbour like you would like to be loved yourself," he said.

In Biloxi, Mississippi, he met sobbing victims who told him they had lost everything. With his arms around them, he promised: "I will help you. Hang in there."

With her sister Kim, 21, by her side, Bronwynne Bassier, 23, told the president her house was in ruins, as she clutched a black plastic bag she hoped to use to collect some items from what was left of her home. "Sorry you're going through this," Mr Bush said, hugging both women.

But critics of the relief effort pulled no punches. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, raged: "I need reinforcements. I need troops, man. I need 500 buses, man. Now get off your asses and fix this. Let's do something and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country."

Estimates suggest that a million people are homeless, and one Louisiana senator, David Vitter, said the death toll in that state alone could be as high as 10,000.

Much of the criticism has been directed at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but its director, Michael Brown, said staff were working "under conditions of urban warfare".

The father of one young Briton trapped with thousands of other refugees in the Superdome echoed that description. "It's like a scene from Mad Max in there," said John Graydon, whose son, Mark, had sought refuge with his girlfriend, Gretchen Heiserman. Instead of safety, said Mr Graydon, his son was in fear of his life. "He told me he was very concerned about his life and his girlfriend's. He said, 'Dad you have to get us out of here'. That is the first time he has said that. He has been pretty brave until now. "They are being abused and threatened. His girlfriend has been threatened with rape."

Perhaps conscious of the level of anger among the survivors, Mr Bush had no plans to enter the devastated city, preferring instead to fly over it in a helicopter before staging a walk-about through the hard-hit suburbs of Biloxi.

Inside the city limits, New Orleans teetered on the brink of anarchy. Rescuers, law officers and helicopters were shot at by storm victims, while fights and fires broke out inside the Superdome as thousands of people waited in misery to board buses for the comparative luxury of the Houston Astrodome.

Corpses lay out in the open as the looting continued.

Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana, called the looters "hoodlums" and warned that she was sending in hundreds of National Guard troops to restore order.

"They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded," she said. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and I expect they will."

But even the National Guardsmen were helpless in the face of a furious mob. At the Superdome, a group of refugees broke through a line of heavily armed troops in a scramble to get on to the buses.

Eddie Compass, the police chief, said officers who went in to check out reports of assaults were forced back.

"We have individuals who are getting raped, we have individuals who are getting beaten," Mr Compass said.

A military helicopter tried to land at the convention centre several times to drop off food and water, but the rushing crowd forced it to back off.

Troopers then tossed supplies to the crowd and flew away.

Mr Bush warned that there should be "zero tolerance" of looters, but the chief of the Louisiana state police said he had heard of numerous instances of New Orleans police officers - many from flooded areas - turning in their badges rather than take on the armed gangs. Colonel Henry Whitehorn said: "They indicated they had lost everything and didn't feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives."

To add to what some described as an "apocalyptic" atmosphere, an explosion at a chemical depot rocked the city yesterday morning, starting a fire which burned throughout the day. And a huge oil spill was spotted near storage tanks on the Mississippi River downstream from New Orleans.

The United Nations offered to support the relief effort "in any way possible" and Asia-Pacific nations - including Sri Lanka, battered by the tsunami - promised to send money and disaster-relief experts.

John Howard, the Australian prime minister, said: "There should not be an assumption that because America is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, this isn't a major crisis."

Australia promised A$10 million (£4.1 million) to the American Red Cross, Japan offered $200,000 and the Toyota Motor Corporation pledged $5 million. Sri Lanka pledged $25,000.

• Americans have donated an estimated $219 million (£119 million) to the relief effort.

In the first ten days after the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks, $239 million (£130 million) was raised - a figure certain to be surpassed in half the time by the current appeal.

Scots on holiday 'forced to join looters to find food'

THE daughter of a Scots holidaymaker caught up in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina told last night how her mother had been forced to join in the looting to find food.

Teresa Cherrie, 42, a nurse, and her partner, John Drysdale, 41, a lorry driver, from Renfrew, are marooned in New Orleans. The couple are desperately awaiting rescue on the roof of an apartment block with ten American refugees in the French quarter of Baton Rouge, while hiding from armed gangs.

Her daughter, Nicola Cherrie, 21, a dental nurse, said: "She phoned this morning at half past two just to let us know they were okay. She was awfully upset and she just said she'd never been so starving in her whole life, she'd never seen so many guns, she'd never been so scared.

"She said they had a tin of ravioli and a packet of biscuits for their dinner tonight. They've had to loot supermarkets for food and scavenge what they can.

"It was meant to be a dream holiday but it's turned into a nightmare," she said.

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