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Anarchy, death and relief for some in New Orleans

CBC News | September 2, 2005

The historic Louisiana city has seen armed looters roam the water-filled streets since Katrina tore through and it now resembles a third-world trouble spot in a refugee crisis.

A million people fled the New Orleans area before Katrina hit but tens of thousands of others were unable to get out or could not afford to make the journey.

Police units, rescue teams and even hospital workers came under fire and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded for urgent help Thursday to get thousands of evacuees to safety. "This is a desperate SOS."

Sporadic gunfire hampered chaotic and widely criticized rescue efforts. Residents complained police and troops had failed to tackle the looting and shootings or help in the rescue effort.

As those in the New Orleans Superdome boarded buses Thursday for the long trip to safety at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, thousands of others showed up to get what they saw as the quickest way out of town.

Weary New Orleans refugees waded through ankle-deep water, grabbed a bottle of water from state troopers and happily hopped on buses that would deliver them from the horrendous conditions of the Superdome.

At the back end of the line, people jammed against police barricades in the rain. Refugees passed out and had to be lifted hand-over-hand overhead to medics, and the evacuation became more complicated as thousands more storm victims showed up at the arena in New Orleans.

Capt. John Pollard of the Texas Air Force National Guard said 20,000 people were in the dome when the evacuation efforts began. By Thursday afternoon, the number had swelled to about 30,000.

Pollard said people poured into the Superdome because they believe it's the best place to get a ride out of town.

Refugees began arriving Thursday at the Astrodome in Houston, where they got a shower, a hot meal and a cool place to sleep.

"I would rather have been in jail," Janice Jones said in obvious relief at being out of the Superdome. "I've been in there seven days and I haven't had a bath. They treated us like animals. Everybody is scared."

The Astrodome's new residents will be issued passes that will let them leave and return as they please, something that wasn't permitted in New Orleans. Organizers also plan to find ways to help the refugees contact relatives.

Besides the 25,000 or so hurricane refugees being brought to Houston, officials said another 25,000 would be taken to San Antonio and other locations.

Back in New Orleans, an angry Terry Ebbert, head of the city's emergency operations, watched the slow exodus from the Superdome Thursday morning and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency response was inadequate.

The chaos at the nearby New Orleans Convention Center was considerably more hostile than the Superdome, with few options for refugees to leave the scene. "We want help," people chanted -- thousands had been told to seek shelter at the convention centre when Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast Monday, only to find inadequate supplies of food and water.

Several corpses lay in nearby streets. The body of one elderly woman was abandoned in her wheelchair, covered with just a blanket. Officials feared thousands of people were dead.

"We need ground transportation to get the evacuees out. We need to get them to shelter, get them to food, get them to a safer environment," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said.

The air ambulance service in charge of taking the sick and injured from the Superdome suspended flights for a few hours after a shot was reported fired at a military helicopter.

After a traffic jam kept buses from arriving at the Superdome for nearly four hours, a near-riot broke out in the scramble to get on the buses that finally showed up.

With much of the city flooded and without electricity, hospitals were struggling to evacuate critically ill patients who were dying because there was not enough oxygen, insulin or intravenous fluids.

Military reinforcements arrived in helicopters and armored personnel carriers patrolled Canal Street, which borders New Orleans' legendary French Quarter district of bars and clubs.

Search crews probed the rubble of collapsed buildings with tiny heat-sensing robots to find the living and cadaver dogs to find the dead. They were still pulling out survivors, and leaving behind corpses trapped under debris.

Senior Pentagon officials said the National Guard force on the storm-ravaged Gulf coast would be raised to 30,000, and 3,000 regular Army soldiers may also be sent in to tackle armed gangs that have looted stores across New Orleans.

On the ground, however, there was no sign the mayhem was being brought under control, and residents feared further violence and bloodshed once darkness fell.

By mid-afternoon Thursday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had delivered food and drinking water to those in the Superdome and that the situation there was under control.

Michael Brown said FEMA was delivering food and drinking water to about 5,000 still at the convention centre.

Brown said one of the ideas they were looking at was to bring in cruise ships to house victims and emergency workers.

The floodwaters started to drop Thursday in New Orleans, which is mostly below sea level and was deluged by water from Lake Pontchartrain after levees broke. But much of the city was still under several feet of water and officials said it could take a month to get the water out.

Looting and tension eased in Biloxi, Mississippi, as troops arrived and the Salvation Army began serving 1,200 meals a day at a canteen set up beside the charity's demolished building.

"The truth is, a terrible tragedy like this brings out the best in most people, brings out the worst in some people," said Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. "We're trying to deal with looters as ruthlessly as we can get our hands on them."

In Washington, Congressional officials said $10 billion in relief aid would go to FEMA, the government's first-line defender in case of natural disasters. The remainder is ticketed for the Pentagon, which has dispatched ships and other assistance to aid in the relief effort.

With the Republican-controlled Congress officially on vacation, top leaders said they would pass the relief measure without waiting for lawmakers to return to the Capitol. Instead, they announced the money would be cleared -- by Friday -- without the formality of a vote, as is often the case on non-controversial measures.

President Bush will tour the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast region on Friday.

The president has asked his father, the former president Bush, and former president Bill Clinton to lead a private fundraising campaign for victims.

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