Katrina's Wrath - Body Count Rises

8-30-05 - As dawn broke over the ravaged Gulf Coast on Tuesday, rescuers in boats and helicopters furiously searched for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The governor said the death toll in one Mississippi county alone could be as high as 80.

"The devastation down there is just enormous," Gov. Haley Barbour said on NBC's "Today" show, the morning after Katrina howled ashore with winds of 145 mph.

Barbour said there were unconfirmed reports of up to 80 deaths in Harrison County, which includes Gulfport and Biloxi, and the number was likely to rise.

"We know that there is a lot of the coast that we have not been able to get to," the governor said. "I hate to say it, but it looks like it is a very bad disaster in terms of human life."

Tree trunks, downed power lines and trees, and chunks of broken concrete in the streets hampered rescue efforts. Swirling water in many areas contained hidden dangers. Crews worked to clear highways. Along one Mississippi highway, motorists themselves used chainsaws to remove trees blocking the road.

More than 1,600 Mississippi National Guardsmen were activated, and the Alabama Guard planned to send two battalions to Mississippi.

Late Monday, Harrison County emergency operations center spokesman Jim Pollard said about 50 people had died in the county, with some 30 of the dead at a beach-side apartment complex in Biloxi. Three other people were killed by falling trees in Mississippi and two died in a traffic accident in Alabama, authorities said.

In Louisiana, officials said people in some swamped neighborhood were feared dead, but gave no immediate numbers.

"All I know is when my people go out, they tell me there are a lot of people awaiting rescue. I hear there are hundreds of people still on their rooftops," said Gen. Ralph Lupin, commander of National Guard troops at the Superdome in New Orleans, where some 10,000 people had taken shelter.

The death toll does not include 11 deaths in South Florida when a much-weaker Katrina first hit land last week.

In New Orleans, residents who had ridden out the brunt of Katrina faced a second more insidious threat as two levee breaches sent water from Lake Pontchartrain coursing through city streets Tuesday.

Col. Rich Wagenaar of the Army Corps of Engineers said a breach in the eastern part of the city was causing flooding and "significant evacuations" in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. He did not know how many people were affected.

Authorities said there was also a levee breach in the western part of the city that began Monday afternoon and may have grown overnight.

Across the Gulf Coast, people were rescued as they clung to rooftops, hundreds of trees were uprooted and sailboats were flung about like toys when Katrina crashed ashore in what could become the most expensive storm in U.S. history.

The hurricane knocked out power to more than 1 million people from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, and authorities said it could be two months before electricity is restored to everyone. Katrina also disrupted petroleum output in the very center of the U.S. oil refining industry and rattled energy markets.

According to preliminary assessments by AIR Worldwide Corp., a risk assessment company, the insurance industry faces as much as $26 billion in claims from Katrina. That would make Katrina more expensive than the previous record-setting storm, Hurricane Andrew, which caused some $21 billion in insured losses in 1992 to property in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

Mississippi's economy was dealt a blow that could run into the millions, as the storm shuttered the flashy casinos that dot its coast. The governor said emergency officials had reports of water reaching the third floors of some casinos.

After striking the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane, Katrina was soon downgraded to a tropical storm as it passed through eastern Mississippi, moving north at 21 mph. Winds early Tuesday were still a dangerous 60 mph.

Forecasters said that as the storm moves north over the next few days, it may spawn tornadoes over the Southeast and swamp the Tennessee and Ohio valleys with a potentially ruinous 8 inches or more of rain.

At the Superdome, where power was lost early Monday, thousands spent a second night in the dark bleachers. With the air conditioning off, the carpets were soggy, the bricks were slick with condensation and anxiety was rising.

"Everybody wants to go see their house. We want to know what's happened to us. It's hot, it's miserable and, on top of that, you're worried about your house," said Rosetta Junne, 37.

A water main broke in New Orleans, making it unsafe to drink the city's water without first boiling it. And police made several arrests for looting.

In a particularly low-lying neighborhood on the south shore of Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain, a levee along a canal gave way and forced dozens of residents to flee or scramble to the roofs when water rose to their gutters.

"I've never encountered anything like it in my life. It just kept rising and rising and rising," said Bryan Vernon, who spent three hours on his roof, screaming over howling winds for someone to save him and his fiancee.

Across a street that had turned into a river bobbing with garbage cans, trash and old tires, a woman leaned from the second-story window of a brick home and pleaded to be rescued. "There are three kids in here," the woman said. "Can you help us?"

In a subdivision of Gulfport, young children clung to one another in a small blue boat Monday evening as neighbors shuffled them out of the neighborhood.

"Let me tell you something, folks. I've been out there. It's complete devastation," Gulfport Fire Chief Pat Sullivan said Monday. He estimated that 75 percent of buildings in Gulfport have major roof damage, "if they have a roof left at all."

Mike Spencer of Gulfport made the mistake of trying to ride out the storm in his house. He told NBC that he used his grandson's little surfboard to make his way around the house as the water rose around him.

Finally, he said, "as the house just filled up with water, it forced me into the attic, and then I ended up kicking out the wall and climbing up to a tree because the houses around me were just disappearing."

He said he wrapped himself around a tree branch and waited four or five hours.

Anne Anderson said she lost her family home in Gulfport.

"My family's an old Mississippi family. I had antiques, 150 years old or more, they're all gone. We have just basically a slab," she told NBC. She added: "Behind us we have a beautiful sunrise and sunset, and that is going to be what I'm going to miss the most, sitting on the porch watching those."