US Disaster with Few Rivals ; Katrina Displaced at Least 500,000 and Cut Power to 2.3 Million

By Peter Grier and Patrik Jonsson | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 2005 | Go to article overview

US Disaster with Few Rivals ; Katrina Displaced at Least 500,000 and Cut Power to 2.3 Million


Peter Grier and Patrik Jonsson, The Christian Science Monitor


As its effects unspool throughout the nation, hurricane Katrina now seems likely to enter US history as an iconic disaster on the level of the Chicago fire of 1871, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and the Mississippi flood of 1927.

New Orleans and other hard-hit areas are struggling just to reestablish normal bonds of society. Gunfire disrupted initial attempts to evacuate refugees from the Superdome on Thursday. In Baton Rouge, La., armed men hijacked a nursing-home bus, evidence of the looting continuing in the region.

Elsewhere, Americans saw the hurricane's winds in the swiftly rising numbers on gas station signs. The price of other commodities may well rise, as the lower Mississippi is a great funnel through which vast amounts of goods flow. New Orleans is a major port for grains, coffee, and other bulk items. Fruit giant Chiquita Brands routes one-quarter of its fresh bananas through the area, for instance.

Looking forward, residents and officials face rebuilding one of the most unique cities in the United States, if not the world. The challenge will be to maintain New Orleans's character while trying to improve the levees and pumps that served as bulwarks for so long.

"This is the largest disaster the US has perhaps ever seen, in terms of its scope, its breadth," says Tiziana Dearing, a relief expert and director of Harvard University's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations.

As unbelievable as it may seem in a nation with no rival for wealth and military power, the extent of the Katrina disaster remains unclear days after the furious winds had passed. At press time, there were 110 confirmed fatalities in Mississippi, and Louisiana officials said the final death toll there could number in the thousands. If so, Katrina would rank as one of the deadliest US natural disasters.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake killed perhaps as many as 6,000 people. The 1900 Galveston hurricane resulted in upwards of 12,000 fatalities.

About 2.3 million people remained without power in a swath from Louisiana to Georgia. New Orleans was under martial law, with residents ordered to evacuate. Officials estimate the city will not be habitable for months, raising the eerie prospect of an American metropolis lying empty for a significant amount of time.

"We are really dealing with an extraordinarily unusual and unique situation," says Walt Peacock, director of the Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. "We now have 500,000 people displaced."

While some corporations say will continue to pay their displaced employees, this vast army of refugees will now sit on the edges of the affected region and look for things to do, says Mr. Peacock. They will face everyday problems of feeding and educating children, finding housing, and making money.

The question is, will they ever move back? "In most disasters, there is an invisible population of the lower income that simply move off to another area. …

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