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09-10-05, 07:46 PM #1
'This Is Worse Than Iraq,' Say Marines
'This Is Worse Than Iraq,' Say Marines
On patrol in New Orleans neighborhoods, troops see only corpses and stranded dogs. It's a sign that rescue efforts are coming to a close.
By David Zucchino
Times Staff Writer
September 10, 2005
NEW ORLEANS — In the Lower 9th Ward, a man's bloated body lay facedown in tar-black floodwaters Friday. He was wedged against a chain-link fence on Reynes Street, outside a low-slung bungalow with pink shutters.
In an upper-story bedroom window, the glass had been broken out and curtains fluttered in the dark air, suggesting someone had escaped in a hurry. There was no way to know how the man had died, but his corpse remained where it was, gently slapped against the fence by the swirling water.
As U.S. Marines moved through neighborhoods still 8 feet deep in water, where no other rescue crews had been able to reach, they swept past the dead man and focused on the living. But all they found in a long day of searching were five bodies, including the one on Reynes Street.
Over the last four days, the number of people rescued by Marines searching along New Orleans' eastern flank has dwindled. The number of bodies has risen each day. This math suggests that rescue efforts are coming to a close, and that the day when New Orleans begins to focus solely on collecting its dead is drawing near.
"It's brutal in there," Marine Lt. Col. Kent Ralston said after his crews, in assault amphibian vehicles known as Amtracs, had plowed through floodwaters up to the rooftops. "I'm afraid they're going to find bodies in some of those homes."
The impoverished, African American neighborhoods of the Lower 9th Ward — composed mostly of brittle frame houses and one-story bungalows — were destroyed when a levee collapsed along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in the middle of the night a day after Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29.
Areas along the canal north of North Claiborne Avenue, directly east of the breach, were flattened.
"Those poor people never had a chance," said Sgt. Dale Gooden, 30, staring in shock at entire blocks of obliterated homes, their frames and roof beams splintered into rubble. "It must have been terrifying trying to get out of there in the dark."
The Marines had not known what to expect before they surged through the polluted waters in the ward, and through several streets in the adjacent Arabi neighborhood, across the city line in St. Bernard Parish. Because of high waters and debris in the narrow streets, few of the homes had been searched by previous rescue teams.
The Amtracs were able to crunch over submerged cars and float over to rooftops, their crews peering in upper-story windows for signs of life. There were no people — only dogs trapped on porches or on upended trees, dozens of them in the roughly 1 1/2 -mile-by-1 1/2 -mile territory covered Friday.
On some blocks, the floodwaters had preserved a moment in time, when the ruptured levee sent a surge of water slamming into the homes. Hundreds of cars remained parked in driveways, their roofs poking through the water. Front doors were locked, windows closed, as if everyone who had not evacuated for the hurricane had gone to bed for the night.
"The violence of the water rushing in there must have been tremendous," Ralston said. "There's mud on the rooftops."
A team of four Amtracs sent by Ralston to search areas of St. Bernard Parish about three miles away, east of Paris Road, found neither survivors nor corpses. The damage was not as extensive as in the Lower 9th Ward, Ralston said. "I hope that means everybody got out OK."
The Marines plan to search the bulk of Arabi today, then return to the Lower 9th Ward neighborhoods at some point to join other military and police crews in house-to-house searches.
In the Lower 9th Ward on Friday, the Amtrac crews were slowed by sagging power lines. They stopped dozens of times to either lift the lines by hand over the tops of their vehicles, or to slice through them with bolt cutters.
On some blocks, the vehicles had to halt suddenly when they encountered houses that had been torn from their foundations and had floated into the middle of the street.
On many streets, mountains of crushed homes blocked the way, and it was impossible to tell where one home ended and the next began.
Some Marines were shocked by the extent of the devastation. A few said they could not believe they were in the United States.
"Man, this is worse than Iraq," said Cpl. Michael Brown, who was wounded in Iraq and broke his right pinkie finger Friday while trying to pry loose an electric wire that had snagged on his Amtrac. "The only good thing is, we get to help our fellow Americans."
The Amtracs also slowed to toss biscuits or wafers from packets of MREs — Meals Ready to Eat — to stranded dogs.
The animals were weak from hunger and dehydration, their coats tight against their ribs and matted with grime. One barked madly from a little island of debris.
In one home where floodwaters had reached the top of the first-floor windows, 1st Lt. John Whiteside spotted a pair of beagle puppies cowering in the exposed attic.
He guided his Amtrac to the roofline, then reached up to try to retrieve the dogs. They withdrew, but did eat an MRE snack cake. Whiteside tossed them more food, then pulled away in the Amtrac.
Some Marines and accompanying Air Force military police noted the addresses or GPS coordinates of houses where dogs were spotted. They intended to relay them to animal protection authorities; one Air Force sergeant said local veterinarians are taking in abandoned dogs. Late Friday, men in a rowboat were seen rescuing dogs from flooded homes in the ward.
If seeing the stranded dogs was painful for the Marines, the sight of the five corpses was unbearable. The crews smelled them before they saw them, and fell silent when the remains came into view on the water's oily surface.
One man's foot was trapped in a tree limb, his torso slung over a metal gate at Flood Street and Johnson Street. The remains of a woman were dangling from a small tree at Lizari Street and North Claiborne Avenue, next to a swaying stop sign.
"Oh, man, oh, man … ," a Marine said softly.
There was not much to raise the spirits of these men on this day. They had felt the satisfaction of rescuing survivors on previous days, but now there were only bloated bodies and marooned dogs. As the hot afternoon wore on, they stared in silence as homes and debris floated past.
The only sign of human life was at the rupture in the levee, where a skip loader dumped gravel into trucks that were filling a 100-yard-long gash in the levee's steel-reinforced concrete, one load at a time.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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