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New Orleans' toxic tide

Filth draining and remaining

NEW ORLEANS — Despite the stench — and the pair of pants, bottle of hair spray and plastic oil cans that float by — Kenneth Economy wades barefoot into New Orleans' fetid brown floodwater.

He has no choice, like so many locals trying to right this wronged city. He is trying to restart the motor of a flat-bottomed boat as he and friends work to rescue people and animals from their neighborhood. Those floodwaters, which have already destroyed an estimated 140,000 to 160,000 homes, now pose a new challenge.

As engineers began pumping out the Big Easy, creating small but visible wakes of water behind street signs and tree trunks, the water they're moving carries a volatile mix of everything imaginable — from household paints, deodorants and old car batteries to railroad tank cars, sewage treatment plants and landfills. While state officials stop short of calling it a toxic soup, at least so far, federal environmental officials call it catastrophic.

Because of the risk of disease from the putrid, sewage-laden floodwaters, police and soldiers — using the unmistakable threat of force — went house to house Wednesday, trying to coax the last 10,000 or so stubborn holdouts to leave the city.

"A large group of young armed men armed with M-16s just arrived at my door and told me that I have to leave," said Patrick McCarty, who owns several buildings and lives in one of them in the city's Lower Garden District. "While not saying they would arrest you, the inference is clear."

Mayor Ray Nagin ordered law officers and the military late Tuesday to evacuate all holdouts — by force if necessary. He warned that the combination of fetid water, fires and natural gas leaks after Hurricane Katrina made it too dangerous to stay.

In fact, the first government tests confirmed Wednesday that the amount of sewage-related bacteria in the floodwaters is at least 10 times higher than acceptable safety levels. Dr. Julie Gerberding, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned stragglers not to even touch the water and pleaded: "If you haven't left the city yet, you must do so."

There were no reports Wednesday of anyone being removed by force. And it was not clear how the order would be carried out.

Active-military troops said they had no plans to use force. National Guard officers said they do not take orders from the mayor. And even the police said they were not ready to use force just yet. It appeared that the mere threat of force would be the first option.

"We have thousands of people who want to voluntarily evacuate at this time," Police Chief Eddie Compass said. "Once they are all out, then we'll concentrate our forces on mandatory evacuation."

'Unprecedented mess'

Breaks in the weather, nature's resilience and engineering ingenuity could mitigate the size and scope of the pollution and health problem, as they have with some previous natural disasters. But the environmental cleanup will be one of the nation's largest ever, experts say.

"This is an unprecedented mess for the U.S. in recent history, and it seems to be certainly affecting many more people than prior U.S. natural disasters," says Robert Pitt, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alabama.

Even discounting the area's unique geology and hydrology, officials and other experts say they're dealing with uncharted waters. "If we had never had a levee breach, we still would have had a tremendous amount of water in these sub-basins," says Don Basham, engineering construction chief for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, a warehouse explosion along the river in New Orleans and an oil spill several days after the hurricane passed through have added to the challenge.

"Everywhere we look there's a spill," said Mike McDaniel, secretary of Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality, in the state's first major assessment of hurricane Katrina's environmental impact. "There's almost a solid sheen over the area right now."

While officials won't know the full extent of the problem until the floodwaters recede — and probably not until weeks or months after that — they do know that the cleanup of what has become an enormous chemical cesspool will be one of the costliest ever. The Corps of Engineers figures that just cleaning up millions of tons of debris — shattered buildings (some with lead paint or asbestos), washed-out motor vehicles, the sodden detritus of private life and commerce — will cost $1.5 billion.

For now, some environmental regulations are being waived in order to address immediate problems. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality issued the naval base in Chalmette a variance so it could burn debris, mostly food that spoiled after losing power. The Environmental Protection Agency has waived the need for Clean Water Act permits to allow the pumping of polluted water out of New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain.

Health emergency

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt has declared a public health emergency in five states: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. There's no telling when wastewater treatment and other sanitary facilities will become functional. More than 500 sewage plants were damaged or destroyed in Louisiana, including 25 major ones.

Officials say there have not been any major outbreaks of infectious diseases. However, because of the standing water, doctors were being urged to watch for diarrheal illnesses caused by such things as E. coli bacteria, certain viruses, and a type of cholera-like bacteria common along the warm Gulf Coast.

"We are one week out, and so far, so good," said Leavitt, who toured the area over the Labor Day weekend. The key here is evacuation of people to safer and cleaner locations.

"In most cases, when the remaining population is removed, most of the main threat (from contaminated water) should decrease," Pitt said. But he adds that such toxicants as petroleum products, paints and acids "are much more persistent and may leave a residue of problems after the water recedes, especially in some areas."

The dead also pose a challenge.

Across miles of ravaged neighborhoods of clapboard houses, grand estates and housing projects, workers are struggling to find and count corpses sniffed out by cadaver dogs in the 90-degree heat. The mayor has said New Orleans' death toll could reach 10,000. Already, a temporary warehouse morgue in rural St. Gabriel that had been prepared to take 1,000 bodies was being readied to handle 5,000.

Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has 25,000 body bags on hand in Louisiana, just in case.

Draining the city

At the moment, the Army Corps and other state and federal agencies are concentrating on pumping water from flooded New Orleans, which sits in a bowl-shaped area below sea level. The effort commenced on Monday. By Tuesday, the city's Pump No. 6, one of the world's largest pump stations, joined two others to get the water out.

Draining the city will take up to 80 days, officials say, at which point the remaining sludge can be analyzed for toxic pollutants. Given the area's hot, humid climate there will be mildew, mold, fungus, and disease-carrying mosquitoes to deal with as well.

The water being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain will eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico. But the pace at which that happens depends on natural processes — winds, future rainfall, cold fronts — that are difficult to predict and impossible to manipulate.

"The water does circulate out of the basin eventually," said Al Naomi, senior project manager for the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers. "But it depends a lot on meteorological conditions, which we really don't have much control or much knowledge of, at least not here."

Beyond the immediate environmental impact of Katrina, the hurricane and its aftermath could have widespread and long-range effects as well. The Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida has a concentration of petroleum and chemical plants. Many of these are in or near low-income, largely African-American communities where the "environmental justice" movement has grown and spread. Off the coast of Louisiana is the 12,000 square-mile "Dead Zone," an area very low in oxygen due largely to excess nutrients tied to agricultural chemicals used in the Mississippi River basin.

It's possible that today's new environmental challenges in the region could exacerbate those situations. But nobody can be sure.

"We're starting into territory where nobody's tread before as far as cleanup and remediation is concerned," said Darryl Malek Wiley of the Sierra Club's office in New Orleans. "There's more questions than answers."

Unwilling to leave

Still, in the high and dry French Quarter, 48-year-old Jack Jones said he would resist if authorities tried to force him out of the home where he has lived since the 1970s.

While the streets were strewn with garbage, rotting food and downed power lines, Jones kept his block pristine, sweeping daily, spraying for mosquitoes and even pouring bleach down drains to kill germs.

Jones said the sick, the elderly and people who lack supplies should be evacuated — but not folks like him. He has 15 cases of drinking water, a generator, canned ravioli, wine, coffee and three cartons of Marlboros.

"I've got everything I need," he said. "I just want to be left alone."