Picking up the pieces

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 31, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Along the Gulf Coast, there was simply no time to even count the dead. Engineers scrambled to plug two broken New Orleans levees and rescuers searched for survivors clinging to both hope and rooftops as the swirling, tea-colored water continued to rise.

The flooding in New Orleans grew worse by the minute Tuesday, prompting Gov. Kathleen Blanco to say that everyone still in the city, now huddled in the Superdome and other rescue centers, needs to leave. She said she wanted the Superdome evacuated within two days, but it was still unclear where the people would go.

''The situation is worsening,'' Blanco said on ABC's ''Good Morning America'' on Tuesday. Asked if New Orleans would have to be evacuated, she said, ''I don't think we can do anything else right now.''

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To repair damage to one of the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain, officials late Tuesday dropped 3,000-pound sandbags from helicopters and hauled dozens of 15-foot concrete barriers into the breach. Maj. Gen. Don Riley of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said officials also had a more audacious plan: finding a barge to plug the 400-foot hole.

''The challenge is an engineering nightmare,'' Blanco said. ''The National Guard has been dropping sandbags into it, but it's like dropping it into a black hole.''

Riley said it could take close to a month to get all the flood water out of the city. If the water rises a few feet higher, it could also wipe out the water system for the whole city, said New Orleans' homeland security chief, Terry Ebbert.

Officials said it was simply too early to estimate a death toll. One Mississippi county alone said it had suffered at least 100 deaths, and officials are ''very, very worried that this is going to go a lot higher,'' said Joe Spraggins, civil defense director for Harrison County, home to Biloxi and Gulfport. In neighboring Jackson County, officials said at least 10 deaths were blamed on the storm.