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New Orleans Slides Into Chaos; U.S. Scrambles to Send Troops

Times Staff Writers

The rushed mobilization of federal troops to the storm-desolated Gulf Coast was outpaced Thursday by New Orleans’ rapid descent into chaos. Sniper fire threatened hospital evacuations and a mass bus caravan to Texas, corpses were found outside the city’s decaying convention center and weakened refugees collapsed amid enraged crowds on city streets.

At nightfall, heavily armed police and National Guard troops took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin implored federal officials for immediate aid. “This is a desperate SOS,” Nagin said.

About 5,000 people filled the city’s convention center and the trash-strewn streets outside on a city plaza where tourists once strolled. Outside the dank, cavernous hall, where temperatures soared and lights winked out, seven corpses lay sprawled, covered by blankets. Other deaths were reported nearby, and there was an increasing number of accounts of rapes and beatings, city officials said.

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The Mississippi River city’s swift downward spiral overwhelmed beleaguered New Orleans emergency officials and posed a stark crisis for the Bush administration and federal troops converging on the flooded Gulf Coast region.

“I know this is an agonizing time,” President Bush said of despairing flood victims in the Gulf Coast region, which he planned to visit today for the first time. “I ask their continued patience as recovery operations unfold.”

Congress rushed a $10.5-billion down payment in relief aid for Hurricane Katrina’s millions of victims Thursday as thousands of National Guard troops converged on bases and staging areas across the flood zone.

As the situation deteriorated, dismayed New Orleans officials and strapped authorities elsewhere in the Gulf Coast begged for immediate aid. Some grumbled openly about the relief effort, saying the Bush administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had endangered lives by moving too slowly.

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“This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace,” said Terry Ebbert, head of emergency operations for New Orleans. He said it had taken too long to evacuate the Superdome.

Army engineers have also been criticized for failing to act quickly to plug gaping breaches in the city’s levees, which were still leaching tons of water Thursday.

Fresh National Guard troops arrived three days after the hurricane hit to find New Orleans police overwhelmed and in some instances outgunned by snipers who holed up in abandoned apartment buildings and storefronts.

An attempt by New Orleans police to take control of the convention center collapsed in a shoving match as an angry mob ran off a team of officers who tried to force their way inside.

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“We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten,” said Police Supt. Eddie Compass, who confirmed the attempt to quell the crowd. “Tourists are walking in that direction, and they are getting preyed upon.”

Louisiana National Guard soldiers chased refugees and stragglers away from the intersection of Loyola Avenue and Girod Street in the heart of New Orleans. An unseen sniper holed up in a nearby building fired sporadically at soldiers and pedestrians.

“We think he’s in one of those high-rises,” Sgt. Matthew Gautreau said, nodding over his shoulder. “He’s been shooting all morning.”

In the flood-swept city center, another distant gunman hidden in a high-rise terrorized doctors and patients at Charity Hospital as staff worked feverishly to evacuate critically ill patients.

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“Sniper! Sniper! Sniper!” nurses screamed as shots drove them back into Charity’s emergency room.

Respiratory therapist Blake Bergeron was among staffers and National Guard troops who were forced to retreat when their truck was fired at after 11 a.m. He heard two or three shots and heard bullets ping into the floodwaters. “The soldiers shouted for us to get down,” he said.

Later, hoping the coast was clear, medical teams again tried to carry patients outside. But more bursts sent doctors scurrying in retreat. Inside, nurses used bellows-like oxygen bags instead of mechanical ventilators to provide oxygen to patients too ill to breathe on their own. At nightfall, several seriously ill patients were evacuated by boat. But the boats soon returned, forced to retreat because promised rescue vehicles were not there to meet them.

By then, several of the sickest patients had died, said Dr. Ruth Bergeron. “They just brought a dead body down from the third floor,” she said grimly.

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The dead also lay under a punishing sun outside the convention center. At least seven bodies were scattered outside the hall, a squatter’s hell for those downtown after their recent rescue from sodden attics and isolated rooftops. The dead lay among the refugees, who were hungry and thirsty and provoked by rumors of bus caravans that never arrived.

An old man lay dead in a chaise longue in a grassy median. Infants wailed around him. Nearby, an elderly woman lay stiffened in a wheelchair, covered by a plaid blanket. Another corpse was at her feet, wrapped in a white sheet.

“I don’t treat my dog like that,” said Daniel Edwards, 47.

Many of the dispossessed who sat slumped in the city center were from New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods; they had no way out and no place to go. Those with means, with money and families elsewhere, were long gone. The poor were left, begging for a ride to anywhere.

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They had survived the storm and flood in old housing projects. But lacking food and water, and dragging wailing babies, they were miserable and sullen, prey to rumors about buses that never came.

Dierdre Duplessix, 32, left the B.W. Cooper Housing Project on Thursday morning with a neighbor, Lovely Peters, 32, and Peters’ three children. They had escaped from a fire escape on a waterlogged mattress.

“They had maggots,” Duplessix said. “They had dead cats and dogs in that water,” she said. For a moment, she brightened. “God is so good. We made it. We’re on dry land.”

And then she started crying.

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At the Superdome on Thursday morning, gunshots fired at Chinook helicopters trying to move the injured prompted officials to delay a long-awaited mass bus evacuation to Texas. About 23,000 refugees have been penned up for days in the dilapidated stadium, and some were boarding buses Thursday for northern Louisiana, the Houston Astrodome or San Antonio, the latest community to agree to house the evacuees.

Late Thursday, officials at the Astrodome closed the arena to further arrivals after accepting more than 11,000 people. They said taking more people would be unrealistic.

The director of an air medical evacuation service said Thursday that his agency had halted helicopter flights to and from the Superdome after at least one shot was fired at a helicopter and medical workers were jostled and threatened by angry crowds.

Richard Zuschlag, chairman of Acadian Ambulance Service in Lafayette, La., said the flights would not resume until authorities could establish order inside the Superdome. His agency operates 25 civilian helicopters and coordinates with the U.S. military for medical evacuation flights. The agency continued to operate emergency rescue flights elsewhere around New Orleans.

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Dr. Charles Burnell and Toby Bergeron, a paramedic, said several gunshots were fired at helicopters -- military and commercial -- during the 24 hours they spent treating refugees at the Superdome. They treated a National Guard military policeman who was shot in the leg with his own automatic rifle while trying to break up a scuffle. Officials said an arrest had been made.

“People were screaming at us, trying to get through the barricades,” said Burnell, 37, who works at a hospital in Lafayette, La. Paramedic Bergeron, 33, of Rayne, La., said medical personnel twice had to move their triage area because of hostility from some people among the thousands gathering in and around the Superdome. “The [National Guard] MPs were trying hard, but they finally said they couldn’t guarantee our safety.”

Later Thursday, another helicopter trying to drop off food and water was forced to retreat by the rush of the crowd. Troopers inside dumped their supplies before flying away.

Outside the storm-scarred Superdome, a 20-year-old woman collapsed amid crowds of exhausted refugees clutching suitcases and plastic bags filled with their possessions.

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“She’s not breathing!” someone screamed. Louisiana State Trooper Jason Martell cradled the woman, carrying her away from the gawking crowd with other officials. He tried to revive her. The woman’s eyes fluttered, but her pulse vanished. In seconds, she was gone.

“She was like Jell-O when I picked her up,” Martell said.

Lives were on the line throughout the flood zones in New Orleans, southern Louisiana and Mississippi. South of New Orleans, in obliterated St. Bernard Parish, scores of refugees were perched on flooded rooftops and apartment house balconies, waving makeshift banners pleading: “Help us!” Along obliterated beaches on the Mississippi coast, survivors picked through piles of rotting garbage for food.

Stray gunshots and threats from evacuees led some rescuers to suspend boat searches along New Orleans’ swollen waterways. “In areas where our employees have been determined to potentially be in danger, we have pulled back,” confirmed Russ Knocke, Department of Homeland Security spokesman.

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Mayor Nagin said the city verged on total breakdown. “Right now we are out of resources at the convention center and don’t anticipate enough buses,” he said. “We need buses. Currently, the convention center is unsanitary and unsafe and we’re running out of supplies.”

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said she had requisitioned hundreds of school buses from around the state to transport evacuees. She said she also had asked federal officials for no fewer than 40,000 troops and was assured that “if we need them, we’ll get them.”

Congressional leaders agreed to cut short their summer recess to act on a Bush administration request for $10.5 billion to cover pressing emergency needs. Congress was expected to give the funds final approval today.

Meanwhile, the president warned that hurricane damage to key oil refineries and pipelines would cause temporary gas shortages in the coming weeks, and he urged Americans to “be prudent” in their driving habits.

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“Don’t buy gas if you don’t need it,” the president said from the Oval Office.

Michael D. Brown, Homeland Security undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response, defended the administration’s performance. “This is still an ongoing disaster,” he said. He said the media had exaggerated reports of violence and anarchy in New Orleans.

Nearly 10,000 National Guard troops were being airlifted into bases in Louisiana and Mississippi, and military planes were landing with tons of tarpaulins, food, ice and 144 portable generators to jump-start paralyzed hospitals and shelters.

In the air, inside the cockpit of a C-130 Hercules transport plane that flew from Point Mugu early Thursday, Air National Guard co-pilot Terry Torres mused aloud about the reports of New Orleans’ violent disintegration.

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“Isn’t it crazy having to fear being shot flying over a city in your own country?” he said. The cargo plane, recently returned from Iraq, carried rows of cots for seriously ill patients to hospitals in Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss.

All day, thousands of active-duty and National Guard troops massed at staging areas in Louisiana and were trucked into positions around the city center and other facilities that had been patrolled for days by weary New Orleans police.

“We are establishing security there,” said Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, who is heading the massive federal task force of active-duty and National Guard troops converging on the flood zones.

Blanco and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) said Thursday that thousands had probably died after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. “We understand there are thousands of dead people,” Landrieu said at a news conference in Baton Rouge. “We know there are elderly people who died. We know children have died.”

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In Mississippi, bodies were stacked up in a temporary morgue in Biloxi. Rescue teams said they had saved some hurricane survivors after getting cellphone text messages from inside mounds of rubble.

“It’s crazy what technology can do,” said Larry Fisher, director of homeland security for Hinds County, which includes Jackson. “At this point, I’ll take a smoke signal if it means we can save someone.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Latest update

Hurricane Katrina sent a 29-foot-high storm surge into Bay St. Louis, Miss., according to a storm tide model developed by the International Hurricane Research Center. Much of the Mississippi coast suffered tidal surges of more than 20 feet. Developments as of 9 p.m. Thursday.

Region

- The military says it expects to increase National Guard deployment to 30,000 from around the country to help with security, rescue and relief.

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- Houston’s Astrodome accepts 11,000 refugees who had been sheltered at the New Orleans Superdome. The remaining 12,000 will be sent to other shelters. Texas officials plan to bring an additional 50,000 refugees to San Antonio and Dallas.

- Congress rushes to provide a $10.5-billion down payment in relief aid.

- Aid agencies tally more than $90 million in private donations.

- Standard & Poor’s estimates that the damage may cost insurance companies $50 billion, including repairs to roads and bridges, double the original estimate.

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Louisiana

- The government is sending 4,200 National Guard troops to New Orleans over the next three days to help stop looting and other lawlessness. Authorities say 2,800 troops are there now.

Mississippi

- The number of confirmed deaths has reached 126.

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Sources: ESRI, TeleAtlas, Associated Press, International Hurricane Research Center. Graphics reporting by Chris Erskine

Barry and Gold reported from New Orleans, as did Times staff writers Alan Zarembo, David Zucchino and Steve Chawkins; Braun reported from Washington with Edwin Chen, Mary Curtius, Nicole Gaouette and Paul Richter; Tony Perry reported from Houston. Times researchers Lianne Hart in Baton Rouge, La., Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta and Lynn Marshall in Seattle also contributed to this report.


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