Inching out of the nightmare

NEW ORLEANS -- Progress was measured in inches Tuesday, in the slow dropping of water levels outside New Orleans' buildings, as engineers struggled to drain this saucer of a city in a Herculean task that could take weeks -- if they are lucky.

The Army Corps of Engineers said the timetable ranges from three weeks to nearly three months, depending on a string of variables, including rainfall, the still-unknown condition of the pumps abandoned to Hurricane Katrina, and whether the system can withstand the flotsam of broken buildings, trees, trash and corpses.

Work has also been impeded by sporadic gunfire coming from "criminals with guns," said Col. Richard Wagenaar, the Corps' chief district engineer.

The contractors are "getting used to it and that's pretty scary," Wagenaar said.

Despite complications, "we have to get the water out of the city or the nightmare will continue," said Louisiana Environmental Secretary Mike McDaniel. He said the water will be pumped into Lake Pontchartrain even though it is fouled with sewage, heavy metals, gasoline and other dangerous substances.

The pumping began after the Corps used hundreds of sandbags and rocks over the Labor Day weekend to close a 200-foot gap in the 17th Street Canal levee that burst in the aftermath of the storm and swamped 80 percent of this below sea-level city.

Following an aerial tour Tuesday, Mayor Ray Nagin said the water was dropping ever so slightly, and he estimated that it covered only 60 percent of the city.

"Even in areas where the water was as high as the rooftops, I started to see parts of the buildings," he said, adding, "I'm starting to see rays of light."

But he also warned of the horrors that could be revealed when the waters recede. "It's going to be awful and it's going to wake the nation up again," said Nagin, who a day earlier upped his estimate of the death toll in his city to as much as 10,000.

Meanwhile, evacuees are lining up to take advantage of social programs offered in other states.

Hurricane evacuees seeking food stamps in Texas started as a trickle and quickly turned into a torrent -- eight applications the first day mushroomed to more than 26,000 within four days. To varying degrees, the same story is playing out around the country as state and local governments take in Gulf Coast refugees by the thousands, taxing social programs that in many cases already were stretched thin.

Minnesota, already working to absorb a wave of roughly 5,000 Hmong refugees from Laos, is preparing for up to 3,000 Katrina victims while still feeling budget cuts in health assistance and job training that have taken effect since 2001.

"We're not what we were five years ago," said Marcia Avner of the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits. "And the reality is, private charity cannot make up the difference."

In Oklahoma, Gov. Brad Henry spoke for many Tuesday when he talked of a desire to be helpful tempered by the concern that "we don't want to stretch ourselves too thin."

"We know it will be a strain," he said. "I think we will be OK."

In many places, concerns about cost were taking a back seat to the impulse to help, at least for now.

San Francisco was moving ahead with plans to house at least 300 Katrina evacuees despite warnings that the city could lose out on federal money by responding too quickly to a Red Cross request for help.

"We're taking these 300 whether we get reimbursed or not," said Annemarie Conroy, director of the city's Office of Emergency Services.

That thought was echoed across the country, in South Carolina, which prepared to take in as many as 18,000 refugees.

"The cost associated with this is kind of secondary at the moment," said Chris Drummond, a spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, adding that the state still remembers the help it got when hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. "We're going to return the favor."

Each state is coping in its own way. Arkansas' governor wants to tap the state's $100 million budget surplus; Tennessee is dipping into its rainy-day fund, at least temporarily; Massachusetts was working on an emergency spending bill.

And states are counting on significant help from the federal government, which approved a $10.5 billion down payment for hurricane relief last week. Congress is likely to approve far more in the days ahead, including assistance targeted for housing, health care, education and other needs.

Texas expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency "to reimburse us 100 percent for everything," said Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry.

But the notion that Washington would pick up the tab for all hurricane-related costs seemed a bit rosy.

Ron Pollack, director of the health care advocacy group Families USA, said that before Katrina hit, Congress had been considering cutbacks in Medicaid "which will make a very bad situation a whole lot worse" if they come to pass.

Likewise, there are federal housing programs in place, but even before Katrina only a third of people eligible for assistance were being served, said Stacy Dean of the private Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. There are federal job-training programs, too, she said, but "the dollars are far too short to deal with the demand."

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Mary Margaret Walker said Tuesday that by 4 p.m. EDT, 317,186 households had registered for state and federal disaster assistance. The agency is registering about 50,000 people per day.