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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 17:35 EDT

Officials rescue Katrina’s survivors amid ‘chaos’

August 31, 2005

By Rick Wilking

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Overwhelmed authorities struggled
to evacuate survivors trapped in the rising floodwaters of New
Orleans and to control looters who ran wild on Wednesday amid
the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina.

Engineers tried to plug a leaking levee that was allowing
lake water to pour into the city two days after the storm
struck the U.S. Gulf Coast. People left stranded were running
out of food and water and growing desperate as authorities
tried to determine how to get them out and where to take them.

“We’ve sent buses in. We will be either loading them by
boat, helicopter, anything that is necessary,” Louisiana Gov.
Kathleen Blanco told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Katrina’s death toll was more than 100 and expected to rise
much higher, but efforts to count the dead took a back seat to
assisting survivors.

The U.S. Energy Department said it would release oil from a
strategic reserve to offset losses in the Gulf of Mexico, where
the storm had shut down production. U.S. crude-oil prices eased
below $70 per barrel on the news, but gasoline futures prices
jumped by about 20 cents per gallon, to $2.67.

Katrina struck Louisiana on Monday with 140 mph (224 kph)
winds, while slamming into the coasts of neighboring
Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida.

A 30-foot (10-meter) storm surge in Mississippi wiped away
90 percent of the buildings along the coast at Biloxi and
Gulfport.

At least 110 people died in Mississippi. “We’re just
estimating, but the number could go double or triple from what
we’re talking about now,” a civil defense director told the
Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion Ledger.

Biloxi, Mississippi, spokesman Vincent Creel earlier said
the death toll would be “in the hundreds.”

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu told reporters she had heard at
least 50 to 100 people were dead in New Orleans.

Louisiana officials said 3,000 people had been rescued, but
many more waited to be picked up in boats that cruised flooded
streets or helicopters that buzzed overhead.

“I’m alive. I’m alive,” shouted a joyous woman as she was
ferried from a home nearly swallowed by the flood.

BODIES FLOATING

Rescue teams busy saving people left bodies floating in the
high waters.

Looting erupted around the city as people broke into stores
to grab supplies, television sets, jewelry, clothes and
computers.

“It’s a lot of chaos right now,” Louisiana state police
Director H.L. Whitehorn said.

New Orleans at first appeared to have received a glancing
blow from Katrina, but the raging waters of Lake Pontchartrain
tore holes in the levees that protect the low-lying city, then
slowly filled it up.

Mayor Ray Nagin said 80 percent of the city was submerged
in water that was in places 20 feet deep.

Attempts failed on Tuesday to plug a 200-foot gap
(60-meter-) in the levee system with 3,000-pound (1,360-kg)
sandbags and concrete barriers, but officials said they would
keep trying.

“The National Guard has been dropping sandbags into it, but
it’s like dropping it into a black hole,” Blanco said.

The lake should return to normal levels within about 36
hours and the water now flooding New Orleans would begin to
drain, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers senior project
engineer Al Naomi.

FRENCH QUARTER

He said the historic French Quarter, the main draw for New
Orleans’ huge tourist industry, should escape with only minor
flooding because it sits 5 feet above sea level.

But Nagin estimated it would be 12 to 16 weeks before
residents could return. The floods knocked out electricity,
contaminated the water supply and cut off most highway routes
into New Orleans.

In hard-hit Jefferson Parish, parish president Aaron
Broussard said a complete rebuilding would be required.
“Jefferson Parish as we knew it is gone forever,” he told
reporters.

A million people fled the New Orleans area before Katrina
arrived. But former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy estimated 80,000
were trapped in the flooded city and urged President Bush to
send more troops.

“We have to send the army to stop this or we will lose New
Orleans and we will lose 80,000 people,” Barthelemy told CNN.
“If we can spend the monies that we are spending to help the
people in Iraq, then we can do the same thing for New Orleans.”

The U.S. military was sending a hospital ship and two
helicopter-carriers to assist two other Navy ships already
conducting rescues in the area. Governors of the afflicted
states mobilized 8,000 National Guard troops.

Amid the looting, gun-toting citizens took to the streets
in some areas to try to restore order in New Orleans. Where it
was still dry, some store owners sat in front of their
businesses, guns in hand.

One had put up a sign reading: “You loot, I shoot.”

CARJACKINGS

Police said there were dozens of carjackings overnight, by
desperate survivors trying to get out of town or obtain
supplies. Somebody fired at a rescue helicopter Tuesday night,
forcing its crew to abandon efforts to evacuate patients from a
hospital, a state official said.

Authorities were so intent on rescuing flood victims that
at first they let the looting go unstopped, Nagin said.

But, he said on CNN, “It is escalating into something a
little different and we’re bringing it under control as we
speak.”

He said 3,500 National Guard troops were being sent to New
Orleans. Louisiana state police were sending 40 troopers and
two armored personnel carriers.

Authorities sought to cope with a growing number homeless
evacuees. Blanco said a plan was being developed to move more
than 12,000 people from the Superdome stadium, which had no
electricity, and other shelters because of deteriorating
conditions.

Katrina knocked out electricity to about 2.3 million
customers, or nearly 5 million people, in Louisiana,
Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, utility companies said.
Restoring power could take weeks, they warned.

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said oil from the
Strategic Petroleum Reserve could be provided to an unnamed oil
refining company as early as Thursday.

“This is not just a problem for the Gulf Coast, this is a
problem for America,” he said on CNN.

(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in Mobile, Alabama)