THE New Orleans river front was hit by a massive blast yesterday morning, with fires raging in the area.
The blast at a chemical plant on the south-west outskirts of the flooded city lit up the sky. The cause is as yet unknown.
Police sent a team to see if toxic fumes had been released as plumes of acridblack smoke drifted through the air along the Mississippi riverfront.
The news came as extra troops were sent to quell the city’s angry, starving and homeless inhabitants, who were left for dead after New Orleans’ levee system collapsed, placing the city under water in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Disease alerts have been issued with decaying dead bodies all around the place and toxic chemicals of all kinds in the water and in the air.
The sick, elderly and disabled were unable to move and many were ‘dropping like flies’, said distressed residents hoping someone would come to evacuate them.
Under-fire US President George W Bush has admitted that the initial response of his government to the disaster was ‘not acceptable’, after the finger was pointed at him for slashing spending on flood prevention and diverting the money to the Iraq war.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned as long ago as 2001 that a hurricane striking New Orleans could cause a disaster.
Despite further warnings in 2004 that, without wetlands protection, the city could be devastated, Bush’s administration cut funding to the Army Corps of Engineers project to hold back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 per cent.
‘We’re going to get on top of this situation,’ said Bush, as he left the White House to tour Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, while those caught up in the disaster were calling it an ‘apocalypse’.
The White House estimates an area of about 90,000 square miles has been affected by the hurricane.
Yesterday a US Senate vote for $10.5bn (£5.7bn) emergency aid to the region was waiting for approval from the House of Representatives.
But the head of the New Orleans emergency operations, Terry Ebbert, described the relief effort as ‘a national disgrace’.
‘We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans,’ Ebbert said.
And Mayor Ray Nagin said the level of outside help the city has received was a disaster in itself. ‘People are dying here,’ he said.
Many thousands are feared to have perished in the hurricane and floods, while the survivors are left without food, water and medical assistance.
The elderly patients of one hospital were taken to the building’s rooftop after staff were told a helicopter was arriving to rescue them.
But no helicopter showed up.
Before relief has arrived, a flood of armed police and troops have already been deployed to quell the unrest in New Orleans and they have begun opening fire on local inhabitants and arresting them.
Some of those deployed are members of the Arkansas National Guard, ‘battle tested’ in Iraq.
• Second news story
‘GATE GOURMET ARE DESPERATE’ say pickets
‘THE company must be desperate’, angry Gate Gourmet strikers told News Line yesterday on hearing that it had extended by a week the deadline for returning the ‘Agreed Framework’ letters applying for ‘compensation’.
TGWU national officer, Oliver Richardson, earlier told the mass picket at Heathrow Airport: ‘We met the company at the TUC yesterday and the company has agreed that the offer will now include pay in lieu of notice and the deadline for applying for compensation has been extended until next Thursday.’
He added: ‘You have been set up and dismissed by this company, but the law is on their side not ours.’
He continued: ‘We must take this campaign to the TUC Conference and the Labour Party Conference.
‘We are now in a process of a political campaign as well as an industrial campaign.
‘The company wants to discuss compulsory redundancy terms, but I repeat, our position is still that everyone who wants to go back must go back.
‘We don’t know if we will succeed or not.
‘We’ve already seen the company make one little move and then another little move, so let’s keep the pressure on them.’
Strikers insisted to News Line they would still not be responding to the change in the deadline, and that they were in the struggle to win their jobs back on the old terms and conditions.
Thandi said: ‘We want to pay our mortgage, look after our kids and lead a normal life again, so we want our jobs back as soon as possible. We want to go back inside, but only with the union.
‘Now they’ve extended the date for returning the letters till next Thursday it is very bad. We can’t tolerate this.
‘Some managers inside have been ringing us up at home saying they need us and asking us to come back inside. But we won’t go back without the union.
‘A few people who did come out went back inside and now they are crying. They are being treated like slaves.
‘We want to go inside as soon as possible but it has to be all together and with the union.’