August 31, 2005

New Orleans chaotic, Texas to get Katrina refugees

By Rick Wilking

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - About 23,000 refugees stuck at the
New Orleans Superdome arena after Hurricane Katrina flooded the
city will be evacuated to Houston under plans announced on
Wednesday, as looters and high water sowed chaos.

A fleet of buses was to begin ferrying some 23,000 refugees
from the storm-battered Superdome to shelter in the Houston
Astrodome 350 miles away.

In New Orleans, engineers tried to plug a leaking levee
that allowed lake water to flood into the city after Katrina
struck the U.S. Gulf Coast. Stranded people were running out of
food and water and growing desperate as authorities sought ways
to get them out.

"We will be either loading them by boat, helicopter,
anything that is necessary," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco
told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Looting erupted 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.

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.


President George W. Bush cut short his vacation in
Crawford, Texas, to return to Washington, where the
administration was putting together an aid package for recovery
and cleanup. Air Force One dipped low enough for the president
to view the destruction as the plane flew over stricken areas.

The Bush administration said it would release oil from a
strategic reserve to offset losses in the Gulf of Mexico, where
the storm had shut down production, and it relaxed
anti-pollution fuel standards with an aim toward making more
gasoline and diesel available.

U.S. crude-oil prices eased below $70 per barrel, but
analysts said they expected retail gasoline prices to vault
well over $3 a gallon in most parts of the country as early as
this weekend.

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

At least 110 people died in Mississippi, which was struck
by a 30-foot (10-meter) storm surge, but local officials said
the toll could be in the hundreds. Search crews patrolled with
cadaver dogs to find the dead.


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.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he expected the Superdome
refugees to begin arriving in Houston in the next 24 hours
aboard some 500 buses provided by federal emergency officials.
The arena in Houston had cleared its schedule until December.
"They are welcome as long as they want to stay in this state,"
Perry said in Houston.

New Orleans flooded after the raging waters of Lake
Pontchartrain tore holes in the levees that protect the
low-lying city, then slowly filled it up.

Attempts had failed on Tuesday to plug a 200-foot gap
(60-meter-) with sandbags and concrete barriers, but officials
said they would keep trying.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to try to fill the
breach with giant 3,000-pound (1,360-kg) sandbags.

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.

He said the historic French Quarter, on slightly higher
ground, should escape with only minor flooding.

But New Orleans Mayor Ray 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 the city.

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

"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," Barthelemy told CNN.


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. A store owner had put up
a sign reading: "You loot, I shoot."

Police said there were dozens of carjackings overnight, by
desperate survivors trying to leave 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 intent on rescuing flood victims let the
looting go unstopped at first, but Nagin told CNN that
authorities were "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.

Katrina knocked out electricity to about 2.3 million
customers, or nearly 5 million people, in four states, utility
companies said. Restoring power could take weeks, they warned.

(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in Mobile, Alabama)