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Draining floodwaters from New Orleans parishes



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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Henry Rodriguez
James Lee Witt

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Contaminated, muddy water fills the streets nine days after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of St. Bernard Parish, which hugs the Mississippi River and Lake Borgne east of New Orleans.

Parish President Henry Rodriguez said most of the structures there will have to be rebuilt.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will take between 24 and 80 days to drain floodwaters out of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes, much of which lie below sea level.

Rodriguez also took the federal and local government to task for their response to the disaster. He criticized a federal government -- led by a former governor -- that "should have been ready for this."

"Obviously, they were as overwhelmed as we were. But they shouldn't have been," Rodriguez said in an interview with CNN affiliate WWL-TV, a New Orleans station broadcasting from Baton Rouge.

"We didn't have any communication," he said.

"Seems to me when you don't hear from a parish or a community you got to know they're in bad shape. Seems to me you got all these people with their degrees, and they don't have any common sense."

Rodriguez said the parish made it through the early days with the help of sheriffs from other states, a contingent of 50 Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other first responders.

Rodriguez said St. Bernard Parish's death toll from the hurricane stands at 67, "but it's going to be more than that. ... an old folks nursing home ... those folks didn't get their people out. At last count there was about 30 of them old people drowned," he said.

Rodriguez said he didn't "anticipate many of the homes being left" in St. Bernard Parish.

Schools there won't reopen until at least January, and residents face "at least a month" before being allowed in to "get some closure."

"But we're gonna rebuild," he said. "And most folks are gonna come back."

Many of the parishes surrounding New Orleans are still largely under water, virtually inaccessible except by air. A Helinet crew, which is providing aerial video for all the television networks, flew through Plaquemines Parish down the Mississippi to the Gulf Tuesday, reporting "town after town of unqualifiable destruction."

In Meraux, although a pumping station was online pushing water into the wetlands north of the Mississippi River, water was still high. Coast Guard helicopters scanned the area for survivors as they did in nearby Violet.

The pumping station in Violet was also online, and had in fact pushed the water level lower than at Meraux -- leaving abandoned vehicles stuck in mud that cakes streets and yards.

Across the river, however, an affluent neighborhood, while clearly hit by Katrina's high winds, was apparently unaffected by the floodwaters.

Farther east at St. Bernard town, about 15 miles east of New Orleans, some parts were dry, but water stood as high in other areas as it does in hard-hit parts of New Orleans.

A football field there served as a supply drop center serviced by a Chinook helicopter.

Parish pride at issue?

Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, whom Louisiana hired to help with the recovery, said St. Bernard officials initially rejected the state's help in recovering bodies before allowing three state officials to help.

Witt told CNN the issue was pride; the parish wanted its own people to recover the bodies.

One parish resident came across the body of his father, who died in a nursing home, Witt said.

From the air, the bright sun belied the devastation -- roofs ripped off, cars upended, some buildings flattened, others picked up and dropped onto one another.

And though the water reflects the blue from the sky, it is actually dark and brackish and smells of chemicals and decay.

Rodriguez called the waters "another Love Canal," referring to the Niagara Falls, New York landfill -- filled with 21,000 tons of chemical waste -- that cost the federal government millions of dollars to clean up in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) are being used to detect survivors and victims in New Orleans. A private Maryland company is coordinating flights for the Navy, State Rep. Steve Scalise told CNN.

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