August 31, 2005

New Orleans in chaos, Bush calls disaster historic

By Jason Reed

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Authorities began to evacuate about
23,000 refugees from the New Orleans Superdome arena on
Wednesday, and President Bush said it would take years to
recover from the flooding and devastation sown by Hurricane

"We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in
our nation's history," Bush said after returning early to the
White House from his Texas vacation to oversee recovery

"This recovery will take a long time. This recovery will
take years," he said. More than 78,000 people were in emergency
shelters, and tens of thousands of homes and businesses were
beyond repair, the president said.

In New Orleans, a fleet of prison buses arrived at the
storm-battered stadium to ferry refugees to the Houston
Astrodome 350 miles away.

Some people waded through 3 feet (1 meter) of water to get
into the dome, where the lights were dim, the water out and the
toilets overflowing, so they might join the convoy. Military
and civilian helicopters landed alongside the facility.

Stranded people were running out of food and water and
growing desperate. Some pushed shopping carts filled with their
belongings along freeways; one cart held a young girl who had
passed out. Others asked an onlooker for food and water.

Engineers tried to plug a leaking levee that allowed lake
water to flood into New Orleans after Katrina spread
destruction along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

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 200, but efforts to
count the dead took a back seat to assisting survivors.


On his way to Washington from Crawford, Texas, Bush's Air
Force One dipped low enough for the president to view the
destruction as the plane flew over stricken areas.

The Bush administration declared a public-health emergency
in the region and the Pentagon ordered 10,000 more National
Guard troops to Louisiana and Mississippi for storm relief,
bringing to 21,000 the total deployed in four
hurricane-battered states.

The administration also said it would release oil from
strategic reserves 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 (225 kph)
winds, while slamming into the coasts of neighboring
Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida.

More than 200 people died in Mississippi, which was
inundated by a 30-foot (10-meter) storm surge.

Some corpses were under too much rubble to safely collect,
and two lay partly exposed to the hot sun in the remnants of a
seaside apartment building in Biloxi, Mississippi.

"We don't know what we're going to do with them. It just
leaves you numb," said hearse driver Jakel Marshall.


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. 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
(60-meter-) gap 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 (1,400-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.


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.

Amid the looting, gun-toting citizens took to the streets
to try to restore order. A store owner 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, 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."

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)