New Orleans becomes federal city as recovery efforts grind on

Editor's Note: Government Executive reporter Chris Strohm is in New Orleans. This is the first of several dispatches he will file this week on recovery efforts. NEW ORLEANS--Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina unleashed her wrath, causing immense devastation and killing an as-yet-uncounted number of people, New Orleans has become, for all intents and purposes, a federal city.

A metropolis that once bustled with busy residents and tourists who partied on Bourbon Street is now occupied by U.S. military forces and a dozen federal agencies working side by side, street by street, with state and local authorities. It seems that every agency wants a piece of this action.

Although the immediate humanitarian crisis is subsiding, agencies dealing with emergency management remain in the Big Easy doing a collective--albeit sometimes chaotic--job to secure, dry out, clean and rebuild the city.

Much of New Orleans is a ghost town. Streets are lined with vacant buildings, some boarded up, others smashed by trees or telephone poles. The sides of some structures have collapsed, sometimes on top of cars or other buildings. Debris is everywhere. Dogs roam the streets searching for any food. Streets in the northern section of New Orleans remain flooded, though authorities say they expect the city to be drained within a month.

Many of those residents who have been allowed to remain have been put to work cleaning the streets for $10 an hour, sweeping debris into heaps so it can be shoveled into overflowing garbage cans or picked up with bulldozers operated by National Guard troops.

Although the water has subsided, the city remains flooded with an alphabet soup of federal agencies.

A walk from the Mississippi riverfront up Canal Street reveals a collage of federal uniforms, vehicles and mobile command centers. Agencies out in force include not only the Federal Emergency Management Agency but the Environmental Protection Agency, the Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureaus, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Private security contractors also are out in full force.

The amphibious battle ship Iwo Jima is docked just off the waterfront, on the southern tip of Canal Street. The military's Joint Task Force command center is housed on the ship.

National Guard units from areas as far away as Oregon and Puerto Rico maneuver military convoys of construction equipment along streets. Active-duty soldiers from the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, N.C., hump it on foot patrols.

The National Guard is providing support to FEMA and state and local authorities as they go door-to-door contacting residents who have not left the city. CBP, ICE, ATF and the Border Patrol are on hand to help with law enforcement and emergency assistance. Agents roam the streets with machine guns pointed down and pistols strapped to their waists.

FEMA and EPA officials have fanned out across the city to conduct tests of air and water. The extent of environmental damage and contamination has yet to be fully determined.

Every agency has a forward-operating command center, each of which is running 24 hours a day. Officials say they've already learned all kinds of lessons about how to deal with a catastrophic situation as a result of their experience in Katrina's aftermath. New Orleans has become somewhat of a federal laboratory--an experiment in a large number of agencies descending on one place at the same time and setting up ad hoc arrangements to conduct operations, even if their efforts sometimes overlap with each other.

Despite all the destruction and chaos, some of the charm that made the Big Easy unique remains. Every day, hot food is served in front of the city's World Trade Center, compliments of the Elberta Little League. Soldiers, federal law enforcement officers, relief workers, contractors and state and local authorities stand in line together to feast on surprisingly tasty selections, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, shredded pork and shrimp creole.

As the sun goes down, the authorities pack their belongings and head back to where they berth, leaving the riverfront almost as barren as the rest of the city. Tomorrow they'll get up and do it all again. Nobody really knows when they'll be going home for good.

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