Survivors were evacuating the shattered city of New Orleans on Thursday as authorities confronted growing lawlessness and desperation days after Hurricane Katrina blasted the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of martial law in the city and ordered police to drop their search-and-rescue operations to concentrate on stopping widespread looting and violence.
“We will do what it takes to bring law and order to our area,” Gov. Kathleen Blanco told reporters.
“I’m furious. It’s intolerable,” she said of the growing crime wave.
Gunshots repeatedly rang out and fires flared around the city as looters broke into stores, houses, hospitals and office buildings — some in search of food, others looking for anything of value.
They broke windows, tore down security gates and knocked down doors, then hauled away what they could carry or cart.
As more National Guard and Army troops headed into the historic city to help with relief efforts, thousands of weary residents waited hours or waded through floodwaters to try to catch rides out of New Orleans, long known as one of the world’s most famous tourist destinations.
A convoy of some 300 buses began shuttling more than 20,000 people holed up in miserable conditions in the Superdome football stadium to Houston’s Astrodome 350 miles away.
The refugees, desperate to escape, pushed and shoved to get on the buses. Tempers flared as they threatened National Guardsmen watching over the evacuation.
The first bus to turn up at the Houston stadium arrived unexpectedly early and authorities said later it had apparently been commandeered and driven to Houston with its load of passengers eager to escape a city lacking electricity and fast running short of food and water.
People on the bus, some of whom described harrowing conditions in the Superdome, were allowed into the Astrodome, which is installing thousands of cots where Houston’s professional baseball and football teams once played.
Ray Nagin estimated it would be 12 to 16 weeks before residents could return. A million people fled the New Orleans area before Katrina arrived. But former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy estimated 80,000 had been trapped in the city.
Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said she had heard at least 50 to 100 people were dead in New Orleans.
In Mississippi, the death toll topped 200 and Gov. Haley Barbour described the scene in the state’s coastal area as “just the greatest devastation I’ve ever seen.”
Hundreds are believed dead in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Monday with 140-mph (225 kph) winds and a 30-foot (9-meter) storm surge that trapped many in their homes.
President Bush flew over stricken areas on his return to Washington from his Texas vacation and said, “We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history.”
“This recovery will take a long time. This recovery will take years,” Bush said.
His administration declared a public health emergency amid concern about outbreaks of disease and began working with Congress on emergency legislation to assist recovery efforts from the disaster that some officials said rivaled the September 11, 2001, attacks.
James Lee Witt, who ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton and oversaw relief after more than 350 disasters, said spending on Katrina’s recovery may exceed that of September 11 because the damage was spread out over such a large area.
“The cost is going to be astronomical,” he said, adding that much of the aid will have to be focused on helping people, rather than repairing infrastructure.
Floodwaters did finally stop rising in New Orleans, which is mostly below sea level and was inundated by water from Lake Pontchartrain after levees broke.
“It’s not a significant decrease but it’s not rising any more,” said Al Naomi, a senior project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers. “It will still take a while to get the water out of the city.
Some low-income people left homeless in Mississippi and Louisiana expressed frustration with relief efforts.
“Many people didn’t have the financial means to get out,” said Alan LeBreton, 41, an apartment superintendent who lived on Biloxi, Mississippi’s seaside road, now in ruins. “That’s a crime and people are angry about it.”
Some fleeing to Houston from the destruction in New Orleans expressed anger they could not join those from the Superdome scheduled to be temporarily housed in the Astrodome.
Houston Mayor Bill White said the Astrodome’s capacity to provide decent living conditions was limited and that America’s fourth most populous city was already providing shelter to numerous refugees in hotels and shelters.
“We’re good neighbors here. We know this is a U.S. situation here and we’re the closest major city so we have tens of thousands of people that will be here,” White told CNN.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry opened the state’s public schools to children of people displaced by Katrina. Thousands of people needing medical care New Orleans was no longer unable to provide were also being sent to Houston hospitals.
Despite the growing fear spawned by looting, a spokesman for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco insisted: “Search and rescue remains the governor’s top priority. The governor is worried about saving lives.”
The spokesman, Bob Mann, said the state was also working to find places elsewhere for those being evacuated.
“We’re not going to drive them and drop them to the side of the road,” said Mann.
The storm was having a national impact as gasoline prices soared. The hurricane cut a swath through a region responsible for about a quarter of the nation’s oil and gas output.
The administration said it would release oil from the nation’s strategic reserves to offset losses in the Gulf of Mexico, where the storm had shut down production.
The U.S. Coast Guard said at least 20 oil rigs and platforms were missing in the Gulf, either sunk or adrift.
The U.S. Coast Guard reported at least 20 oil rigs or platforms missing in the Gulf of Mexico, while officials estimated 95 percent of regional oil and natural gas production and eight refineries along the coast remained shut down.
Several crude pipelines on the Gulf Coast remained out of service due to power outages, damage and flooding.
(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in Mobile, Alabama and Jeff Franks in Houston)
© Reuters 2005