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New Orleans tries to plug breaches

Feds fan out in storm recovery efforts across Gulf region




Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- As New Orleans authorities worked to plug the breaches in the city's levees, and search and rescue teams headed to devastated areas of the Gulf Coast, President Bush promised a national effort on behalf of Hurricane Katrina victims.

"The recovery effort will take a long time," he said. "The recovery will take years."

In addition to marshaling national resources, he has enlisted the help of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Bill Clinton to spearhead an international relief effort, similar to the one they undertook for victims of last year's tsunami in South Asia. (Full story)

Meanwhile, a number of corporations have responded by contributing millions of dollars in relief aid. (See list)

And celebrities are holding benefits and concerts to raise money, as well. (Full story)

The priority in New Orleans is repairing the gaping holes in the levees that separate downtown New Orleans from canals to Lake Pontchartrain, according to a chief engineer working on that project.

Water pouring in from the lake has stopped, because the lake's water level is equal to that of the water level in the city, said Walter Baumy, chief of the engineering division for the New Orleans District.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it expected to begin dumping 15,000-pound sandbags as early as Wednesday evening into the largest breaches. (Map)(See video showing extent of levee breach)

One stretches 300 feet at the 17th Street Canal, the other is 300 to 400 feet wide at the London Avenue Canal. In addition, two smaller breaches have occurred on the Industrial Canal, one appearing to be about 200 feet wide, Baumy said.

In each case, the steel-and-concrete levees eroded and failed when water began pouring over the top. "Once the water overtopped the system, you're taking the structure to a condition that it was not designed for," he added.

Attempts to plug such holes has never been tried, acknowledged Greg Breerwood, deputy district engineer for project management for the New Orleans District.

To enable water trapped inside the city to drain back into the lake, the Army Corps would have to open new breaches in the levees, he said. Once the water had lowered enough for pumps inside the city to finish the job, "those holes would then be repaired," Breerwood explained.

Once the Sewer and Water Board gets the pumps running, it will be possible to remove the water, a corps spokesman said. However, that could take weeks, he added.

More than 1,000 sandbags are likely to be needed. And officials were awaiting the arrival of four heavy-lifting Chinook helicopters to join the two already on site, Baumy said.

The massive craft -- which are primarily used to move heavy equipment onto battlefields -- are being used because access to the affected areas is not available via any other means, Baumy said.

About 80 percent of New Orleans is flooded with water up to 20 feet deep, and none of the city's pumps are working.

Engineers had set up their command-and-control operations in Vicksburg, Mississippi, more than 150 miles away.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco described the project Wednesday as "an engineering nightmare." (See video of Blanco discussing rescue and recovery efforts -- 3:09)

Meanwhile officials are coordinating with emergency relief agencies to evacuate New Orleans.

The first evacuation buses arrived Wednesday evening near the Louisiana Superdome, where up to 30,000 people have sought shelter under deteriorating conditions. Under the direction of National Guard troops, weary evacuees waited in long lines to board buses that will relocate them to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, where they will be temporarily housed.

The state of Texas was sending 475 buses to New Orleans to make the transfer, said Robert Black, a spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (Full story)

Inaccessible communities

Many communities along the Gulf Coast remain inaccessible. And the entire region was declared under a public health emergency Wednesday, amid fears of cholera, typhoid and other diseases that could emerge because of the stagnant water.

Of the 40 medical shelters planned for the area, one is already up and running in Baton Rouge; another 10 are expected to be operational in the next three days, said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

Patients needing advanced care will be sent to hospitals around a 12-state region, he said. In addition to the shipment of first aid supplies to the area, Leavitt said public health teams from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration will be sent to the region. He said the spread of mosquito-borne disease, food safety and water contamination are of chief concern. (Full story)

In Mississippi's hardest hit areas of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, emergency officials were setting up MASH-style mobile hospitals to help the injured. (Full story)

"I would say ... about 50 percent [of the community] we're not going to be able to get to. And it may take several days and maybe even weeks to get to because we're talking about major buildings ... collapsing and just what we call 'pancaking,' " said Gary Hargrove, the coroner for Harrison County, home to Gulfport and Biloxi.

Doctors, nurses, and emergency medical technicians from states around Mississippi are needed, said the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Those who want to assist should contact their state's licensing board, which should then get in touch with Mississippi's licensure board for accreditation, said Brad Mayo, public information officer for MEMA.

He said that 3,000 members of the Mississippi National Guard are "using chainsaws to cut their way in to the coast," and that 18 urban search-and-rescue crews from FEMA and other states are on the way too. Also arriving are 39 medical disaster teams, four veterinary disaster teams and two mental health teams, Mayo said. (See video of animal rescue efforts)

Some areas were still inaccessible by road, Mayo said, and crews were using boats to get around.

On Wednesday, Mississippi officials reopened U.S. Highway 49 from Jackson to Seminary, just north of Hattiesburg.

That should help the 1,700 trucks bringing in ice, food, water, fuel and medical supplies to the affected areas.

"We're shipping ice in from Memphis," Mayo said.

The supplies also will be used in areas as far north as Jackson.

As for those who have already evacuated the region, he advised they stay away from their homes for the foreseeable future.

"We cannot stress enough not to go back. The roads are out, power's out, there's no water. It will be an extremely long time before people can start going back to their homes in that area," he said.

"If somebody's in a safe area, then stay there by all means," Mayo added.

Coordinating the federal response plan to Hurricane Katrina will be Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He is already in the region working with state and local officials.

The plan for the first time provides all federal government departments and agencies with the same playbook to use when responding to major incidents such as terrorist attacks, major industrial accidents, hurricanes, tornadoes or tsunamis.

FEMA has issued a list of organizations for those seeking to assist victims. (How to help)

CNN's Mike Ahlers, Mike Mount, Barbara Starr, Jamie McIntyre, Chris Lawrence, Ben Blake and Kim Segal contributed to this report.

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