Tuesday, September 06, 2005

It's Party Time!

City to Offer Free Trips to Las Vegas for Officers

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 4 - A day after two police suicides and the abrupt resignations or desertions of up to 200 police officers, defiant city officials on Sunday began offering five-day vacations - and even trips to Las Vegas - to the police, firefighters and city emergency workers and their families.

The idea of paid vacations was raised by both Mayor C. Ray Nagin and senior police officials who said that their forces were exhausted and traumatized and that the arrival of the National Guard had made way for the officers to be relieved.

"I'm very concerned about individuals who have been here, particularly since the first few days, and have been through a lot of hardship," Mr. Nagin said in an interview.

He said most of the police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers "are starting to show signs of very, very serious stress, and this is a way to give them time to reunite with their families."

Mr. Nagin, who has been demanding more federal assistance for days as his city struggled with despair, death and flooding, said he had asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for the trips but the agency said it could not. He said the city, therefore, would pay the costs.

He said he believed there were now enough National Guard members in the city to allow the police to take a break and still keep the city secure, and he brushed off questions about whether such a trip might look like a dereliction of duty.

"I'll take the heat on that," Mr. Nagin said. "We want to cater to them."

His words were seconded by the police superintendent, P. Edwin Compass III, in a separate interview. "When you go through something this devastating and traumatic," Mr. Compass said, "you've got to do something dramatic to jump-start the healing process."

The officials were planning to send 1,500 workers out in two shifts for five days each. They are sending them to Las Vegas because of the availability of hotel rooms and to Atlanta because many of them had relatives there.

They said that they were trying to get the first officers on their way on Monday and that the first stop would be Baton Rouge, about 75 miles from here.

There the officers will be given physical examinations and inoculations against possible infection from the polluted floodwaters, said Col. Terry Ebbert, the director of homeland security for the city, who has authority over the police and fire departments and other emergency services.

Then, Colonel Ebbert and other officials said, those who want to go to Las Vegas or Atlanta will be given air transportation and a hotel room. The city is reserving hotel rooms in Baton Rouge, they said, adding that the officers and firefighters may also be given the choice of flying to other cities.

Colonel Ebbert, the senior official running the recovery and rescue operation, and Mr. Compass both said that they planned to take a break as well, but probably for less than five days, and that they would continue to direct the recovery by telephone.

Officials said they expected the military, with much greater resources, to expand rescue work, begin cleaning up the city and take the first steps toward reconstruction.

W. J. Riley, the deputy superintendent of police, said that by late Sunday afternoon more than 2,900 National Guard members and law enforcement officers from around the country were operating in New Orleans. By early evening, Mr. Riley said, the advance units of a 2,200-person force from the 82nd Airborne Division had landed.

Several thousand more soldiers were expected, including members of the First Cavalry Division.

Reinforcements are also expected for the fire department. Senior firefighters, who have been forced to ignore some fires and to try merely to keep the worst blazes from spreading, said that several hundred firefighters with fire engines and radio equipment were heading for New Orleans from departments around the country.

New Orleans officials said they would remain in charge. Mr. Riley, who has been on the police force for 24 years, will oversee the police department in the superintendent's absence.

"We haven't turned over control of the city," Colonel Ebbert said.

Mr. Riley said that 40 percent of the city's force of about 1,200 officers would remain at their posts while the others were on leave. When the first group returns, Mr. Riley said, those who stayed behind will get a break.

Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Matthews, who is also the director of the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness, said officials viewed the time off for their security forces as essential. "We've been at this six days and we need to give our people a break," he said.


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