The city’s police and emergency officials worked desperately Wednesday to prevent complete social disintegration as widespread looting continued for a second day and cresting floodwaters hid untold numbers of dead.
Though the flooding appeared to stabilize, 90% of New Orleans’ homes were underwater, officials said. Repair crews readied 20,000-pound sandbags to plug gaping breaches in the city’s levees, but officials bickered over the slow progress.
Bus caravans started to move 23,000 exhausted Superdome refugees to shelter in Texas. A few hundred people left Wednesday, and the full-scale evacuation was to begin at midnight. On a stretch of interstate near the stadium, a mob of flood victims began an anarchic march of their own, abandoning the ruined city.
Federal officials dispatched National Guard convoys and U.S. warships to the Gulf Coast to aid in rescues and deliver supplies.
The immense scale of the disaster spawned after Hurricane Katrina struck Monday, and the pressing burden of new emergencies, continued to threaten thousands of the dispossessed in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where survivors scavenged for food and shelter and were at risk for dehydration as they waited on rooftops to be rescued.
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin predicted that “at minimum, hundreds” and “most likely thousands” of city residents lay in underwater graves. “We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water,” he said.
Despite the urgency of the situation for victims in need of rescue, Nagin ordered the city’s police force Wednesday night to discontinue such missions and return to the streets to counter waves of looting that had turned violent.
“They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas -- hotels, hospitals -- and we’re going to stop it right now,” Nagin said. The mayor said 1,500 police officers, nearly the entire department, were being redeployed on the city’s remaining stretches of dry land.
At flood-swamped Charity Hospital, looters with handguns forced doctors to give up stores of narcotics. Wal-Mart gun racks and ammunition supplies were stripped.
Thieves commandeered a forklift to smash the security glass window of one pharmacy, fleeing with so much ice, water and food that they left a trail behind them. Brazen gangs chased down a state police truck filled with food, and even city officials were accused of commandeering equipment from a looted Office Depot.
“It started with people running out of food, and you can’t really argue with that too much,” Nagin said. “Then it escalated to this kind of mass chaos where people are taking electronic stuff and all that.”
The fraying conditions of life in the flood zones could be measured in the sighs and short tempers of frustrated public officials. Nagin found a measure of hope in the decision by Texas officials to house thousands of flood refugees in the Houston Astrodome. But he turned grim as he echoed mounting reports from police and National Guard troops who said bodies were floating in the waters.
Nagin said medical examiners were setting up a temporary morgue and would soon begin a methodical search for those who drowned, trapped in bedrooms and attics or carried by the currents.
A New Orleans television station reported that one woman waded through the floodwaters, floating her husband’s body downstream to Charity Hospital on a door.
Nagin said officials would be able to fully deal with the crisis only when there was “total evacuation of the city. We have to. The city will not be functional for two or three months,” he said.
The mayor added that residents would probably not be allowed back into their homes for at least a month or two.
During another long day, rescuers concentrated on the living. Helicopters darted over Chalmette Medical Center in inundated St. Bernard Parish, southeast of the French Quarter, trying to evacuate more than 300 patients, medical staff and refugees who clambered to the roof for safety. Other hospitals throughout the city were on the verge of shutting down as supplies of generator fuel dwindled.
“The situation is grave,” said Donald Smithburg, chief executive of the Louisiana State University hospital system.
Two LSU hospitals in New Orleans “are desperately short of raw materials,” Smithburg said. “We have no power, no water, no toilets, and we don’t have fuel to operate our generators.... We’re simply out of juice. Now it boils down to transporting the rawest materials, fuel, so we can buy another few hours or another day.”
More ruptures were found in the city’s overwhelmed levees, but the swelling floodwaters had finally leveled with the storm surges flowing from Lake Pontchartrain. The Army Corps of Engineers planned to drop 20,000-pound sandbags by helicopter over the porous dikes and to float in barges carrying massive concrete highway barriers that will be wedged against the gaps.
Late in the day, the Corps appeared to alter its plans, saying crews would slice notches in the tops of levees to allow water to flow out of the city and into Lake Pontchartrain. The lake level is already receding -- 2 feet since Tuesday -- and at the 17th Street Canal, they hope to wedge in sheet pilings to stem the flow.
“That’s the plan now,” said Mike Rogers, director of programs for the Mississippi Valley division of the Corps. “It can change,” he added.
Four amphibious warships dispatched by President Bush were heading toward New Orleans with stores of provisions, medical supplies and equipment to aid in rescue efforts, medical treatment and even shelter for thousands of homeless residents.
“Our first priority is to save lives,” said Bush, who returned early to Washington from vacation at his Texas ranch. “We’re assisting local officials in New Orleans in evacuating any remaining citizens from the affected area.”
The armada sent to the Gulf Coast included the Bataan, which will conduct rescue missions; four ships to direct disaster response; and the Comfort, a hospital ship.
More than 10,000 National Guard troops from other states were also being deployed, Bush said, joining 18,000 Guard personnel already stationed in the area. Most were being used to patrol government facilities and aid police in search missions and treatment of those brought to safety.
The Pentagon also authorized Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the Northern Command, to lay plans for possibly deploying active-duty troops -- a move that can be ordered only by the president under the rarely used Insurrection Act.
Looters moved freely through New Orleans’ shuttered shopping districts Wednesday, wading through floodwaters with mounds of clothing, jewelry and stolen guns. On the few spits of dry land, there were carjackings. One furious city resident surrendered his pickup truck to a machete-wielding assailant.
Nagin acknowledged that there were too few officers to stop the crime wave.
“We are going to try to contain the looting,” he said. “But we know that we are not going to be able to stop it.”
Federal authorities said they were investigating whether looters had struck at Wal-Mart stores, stealing guns and ammunition that were then used for street crimes and further escalated the looting.
Justice Department officials confirmed that they also were working with local authorities to investigate cases of price-gouging in the New Orleans area and other hurricane zones, including sales of gasoline and water at inflated prices.
Louisiana National Guard 1st Sgt. John Jewell said Guard snipers had been sent in to flooded Charity Hospital to try to find looters who were seen racing through the facility with pistols.
The Guard patrols were a welcome sight for police, who are “multi-tasking right now,” said New Orleans Police Capt. Marlon Defillo. “Rescue, recovery, stabilization of looting, we’re trying to feed the hungry.”
Looters also swarmed through stores in the Mississippi coastal town of Gulfport, where Hurricane Katrina demolished the city police station.
Across the numbed Gulf Coast states, 1.5 million people made do without electricity, food, water and functioning toilets.
More than 60,000 people were reportedly left homeless in New Orleans. They slept in the sun on the interstate near the Superdome, where they waited for the buses that would take them to Houston and northern Louisiana.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said many Superdome refugees would be housed temporarily in the Astrodome, a former venue for professional football and baseball, until other housing could be found. And their children, Perry said, would be welcomed into Texas schools. “We’re going to get through this together as one American family,” he said.
Inside the Superdome, where officials said one despairing man committed suicide Tuesday by leaping from an upper ramp, the air reeked of urine, feces and sweat, and the floor was puddled from roof leaks.
“People are trying to keep things clean,” said Terry Broussard, 47, who moved outside. “But it’s getting worse and worse.”
Thousands of lost people with nowhere to go began trudging in a march of desperation west along Interstate 10.
Many came from the poorest neighborhoods of east New Orleans, streaming out of several housing projects and the submerged 9th Ward.
Many milling refugees were turned away Wednesday when they tried to force their way into the Superdome. But with its roof tattered by Katrina’s winds and its toilets overflowing, the stadium was being abandoned. “We cannot accommodate anyone else in the Superdome,” Nagin said.
“It’s very hot. There is no shade. We need to get provisions to them,” he said Wednesday night. “They have zero.”
Nagin said he hoped the evacuation of the Superdome would take only a day. Refugees were to be bused to six locations, including Lafayette, La., as well as Houston.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Coast of crises
The Gulf Coast’s miseries continue to mount as the toll from Hurricane Katrina becomes more apparent. Damage information as of 5 p.m. PDT Wednesday:
Early estimates of $25 billion in damage.
Rescue agencies are sending medical and search teams, 1,700 trucks carrying millions of liters of water and more than 100 generators.
Thousands of people may have been killed in the hurricane, according to New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.
As many as 100,000 people remain in New Orleans.
New Orleans has no drinkable water and no electricity.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency may house people on cruise ships, in tent cities and mobile home parks.
3,000 people are rescued by boat and air.
Along the coastline, nearly every structure from the beach to half a mile inland is destroyed.
An estimated 110 storm-related deaths are reported.
About 1 million people are reported without power.
In Biloxi, the historic home of Jefferson Davis is destroyed.
In Jackson County, an estimated 14 people are killed and one-third of the 131,000 residents lose their homes.
Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi is decimated by the hurricane’s floodwater and wind.
Some 375,000 people are without power.
Damaged pipelines send gasoline prices soaring to as much as $3.55 a gallon, and even $4.99 a gallon in Atlanta, according to some reports.
Sources: ESRI, TeleAtlas, GlobeXplorer, Earthsat (1999), Times sources, Associated Press, Bloomberg, CNN
Graphics reporting by Joel Greenberg
Gold reported from New Orleans, Hart from Baton Rouge, La., and Braun from Washington. Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.