Complete chaos now rules in New Orleans

Four-year-old Clara Anisha Brown holds on to volunteer Chad Meaux as they made their way through the flooded streets of New Orleans on Wednesday after she and her family were rescued from their home in St. Bernard Parish following three days without food and water.

Photos by VINCENT LAFORET/The New York Times
Published: Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 1:16 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS - Chaos gripped New Orleans on Wednesday as looters ran wild, food and water supplies dwindled, bodies floated in the floodwaters, the Superdome was to be evacuated and officials said there was no choice but to abandon the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, perhaps for months. President Bush pledged vast assistance, but acknowledged: ''This recovery will take years.''
For the first time, a New Orleans official suggested the scope of the death toll. Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the hurricane may have killed thousands in his city alone, an estimate that, if correct, would make it the nation's deadliest natural disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which killed up to 6,000.
''We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water,'' and others hidden from view in attics and other places, the mayor told reporters. Asked how many, he said: ''Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands.''
As survivors struggled with a disaster that left damage of up to $25 billion, a gargantuan relief effort got under way. Ships, planes, helicopters and convoys of supplies and rescue teams converged on the Gulf Coast, and Pentagon officials said that 30,000 National Guard and active-duty troops would be deployed by this weekend in the largest domestic relief effort by the military in the nation's history.
With police officers and National Guard troops giving priority to saving lives, looters brazenly ripped open gates and ransacked stores for food, clothing, television sets, computers, jewelry and guns, often in full view of helpless law enforcement officials. Dozens of carjackings, apparently by survivors desperate to escape, were reported, as were a number of shootings.
Wednesday night Nagin ordered 1,500 police to turn from search and rescue to stopping the looting. ''They are starting to get closer to the heavily populated areas - hotels, hospitals, and we're going to stop it right now,'' he said in a statement issued to The Associated Press.
New Orleans, a city of 500,000, mostly below sea level and reliant upon levees along the Mississippi River running through it and Lake Pontchartrain to the north, was a nightmarish waterworld that Nagin said would have to be abandoned while the levees are repaired and the city drained. He called for a ''total evacuation,'' adding: ''We have to. The city will not be functional for two or three months.''
As floods ravaged a drowning city already 80 percent under water, Army engineers tried to plug breached levees that had allowed water to surge in from Lake Pontchartrain, struggling around the clock to move sandbags and concrete barriers into gaping holes. The existence of a third gap of 100 feet was disclosed Wednesday and officials called the repair task an engineering nightmare.
But in an otherwise dismal picture of wreckage and despair, Col. Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for New Orleans, offered a glimmer of hope. He said the city's flooding seemed to be stabilizing. ''The water isn't going to get higher,'' he said. With the level of Pontchartrain down several feet, the lake and its feeder canals had reached a point of equilibrium with the water in the city, he said.
For thousands of refugees trapped in New Orleans it was little consolation, however. Hundreds were still huddled on rooftops or isolated on patches of ground, where they have awaited rescue for two days without food or water. An armada of small boats was out, and rescued many from flooded areas in the poorest sections of New Orleans.
Other refugees wandered aimlessly, on land and through shallows, pushing shopping carts of belongings. Some perched on sections of Interstate 10 that were still standing, though much of the highway had collapsed. Cars shimmered eerily underwater, and basketballs floated on the surface, along with children's swimming floats, trees and other debris.
The bulk of the city's refugees were in or around the Superdome, which has become a shelter of last resort for more than 20,000 people. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana said conditions there had become desperate, with food, water and other supplies running out, with toilets overflowing and the air foul, with temperatures hitting 100 degrees and tempers flaring.
''It's becoming untenable,'' the governor said. ''There's no power. It's getting more difficult to get food and water supplies in, just basic essentials.'' She said she wanted the Superdome totally evacuated within two days, and plans were being made to move most of the refugees to Houston's Astrodome, 350 miles away, in a convoy of 475 buses.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, besides offering the use of the Astrodome and other shelters in Houston, said that school-aged children of the refugees would be promptly admitted to Texas public schools and given textbooks, lunches and transportation.
''In the face of such tragic circumstances,'' Perry said, ''we know we're neighbors and we're going to pull together so that these families can find as much normalcy as they can. We realize that by the grace of God we could be the ones that have this extraordinary need.''
Across the stricken region, there were tales of misery, with hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses destroyed, with roads washed away and airports shut down, with power grids shattered and five million people in four states lacking electricity.
And to the rising toll of victims killed, injured or homeless and jobless were added other plagues: possible epidemics of disease; overwhelmed hospitals and sanitation facilities, lost communications and transportation systems and almost everywhere hellish scenes of wreckage-strewn communities.
In Mississippi, at least 110 people were dead, hundreds of waterfront homes and businesses were destroyed, nearly a million homes were without power and dozens of casinos built on barges were heavily damaged or wrecked, depriving 14,000 people of jobs and the state of $500,000 a day in tax revenues. In Biloxi, looters rifled casino slot machines for coins and ransacked other businesses. The city of Gulfport was almost totally destroyed, and Biloxi was heavily damaged.
In Alabama, more than 400,000 homes and businesses were without power, flooding reached 11 feet in Mobile and hundreds of homes along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay were flooded. Florida, struck by the eastern edge of the cartwheeling storm on Monday, reported 11 deaths and more than 100,000 homes and businesses were still without power.
Returning to Washington from a Texas vacation, President Bush flew over the stricken Gulf Coast for a first-hand look at the destruction, and at a news conference later said that his administration was committed to the relief and recovery effort.
''The folks on the Gulf Coast are going to need the help of this country for a long time,'' he said. ''This is going to be a difficult road.''
Under the mobilization, the Pentagon was sending in eight ships carrying food, medicines, fuel and other supplies, as well as construction materials. The Defense Department also ordered the hospital ship Comfort redeployed from Baltimore. About 60 helicopters were sent to assist in search and rescues and to haul heavy cargo and assess damage.
Eight 14-member Swift Boat rescue teams also were dispatched from California aboard Air Force C-5 cargo planes. More than 11,000 members of the National Guard were already in the region, providing rescue and relief assistance, officials said. Hundreds of heavy, high-wheeled trucks capable of plowing through water were also on the way.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed 39 disaster medical assistance teams from around the country, and has mobilized 1,700 trailer trucks to carry in water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents, tarpaulins and other aid.
Michael Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said a health emergency had been declared for the region and that a network of 40 medical shelters was being set up. Public health teams were also being assembled, he said, and 2,600 hospital beds in 12 states, and 40,000 nationwide, had been identified for use, if needed.
''We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases that could come as a result of the stagnant water and other conditions,'' he said. ''We'll also be working with local officials on sanitation and food safety.''

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