Friday, September 2, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — The city that care forgot descended into anarchy yesterday, and the mayor dispatched “a desperate SOS.”

Storm victims are raped and beaten; fights erupt with flying fists, knives and guns; fires are breaking out; corpses litter the streets; and police and rescue helicopters are repeatedly fired on.

The plea from Mayor C. Ray Nagin came even as National Guardsmen poured in to restore order and stop the looting, carjackings and gunfire.

In a statement to CNN, Mr. Nagin said, “This is a desperate SOS. Right now, we are out of resources at the convention center and don’t anticipate enough buses. We need buses. Currently, the convention center is unsanitary and unsafe, and we’re running out of supplies.”

Last night, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said 300 Iraq-hardened Arkansas National Guard members were inside New Orleans with shoot-to-kill orders.

“These troops are … under my orders to restore order in the streets, ” she said. “They have M-16s, and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the government is sending in 1,400 National Guardsmen a day to help stop looting and other lawlessness in New Orleans. Already, 2,800 National Guardsmen are in the city, he said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rescue operations were suspended in areas where gunfire had broken out, and the head of the city’s emergency operations called the federal response a “national disgrace.”

Terry Ebbert, head of the city’s emergency operations, said help is little and late. He warned that the slow evacuation had become an “incredibly explosive situation.”

“FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”

Michael Brown, the undersecretary in charge of FEMA, seemed oblivious to the widespread despair.

“I actually think the security situation is pretty darn good,” he told reporters.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan, spokesman at the city emergency operations center, said she had reports of people shooting at helicopters trying to evacuate hospitals.

“There are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, ‘You better come get my family,’” Cmdr. Ben-Iesan said.

Anger mounted across the soggy ruined city, with thousands of storm victims hungry, desperate and despairing of the promised buses to take them out.

“We are out here like pure animals,” said the Rev. Issac Clark, 68, sitting outside the New Orleans Convention Center, where evacuees complained that they were dropped off and given nothing — no food, no water, no medicine. “We don’t have help.”

In Washington, President Bush said there will be “zero tolerance” for looters and price gougers, and advised motorists, “Don’t buy gas if you don’t need it.” He plans to tour the region today.

Congress returned to pass a $10.5 billion emergency aid package to keep FEMA from running out of money while aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina. Last night, the Senate passed the aid package, and the House will meet in special session today to enact it as law.

Mr. Bush dispatched former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton to reprise their fundraising efforts from the December tsunami in Asia.

In the city’s Central Business District, 15,000 to 20,000 persons who had taken shelter at the convention center to await buses grew increasingly hostile. Police Chief Eddie Compass said he sent in 88 officers to quell the disorder, but they were quickly beaten back by the mob.

“We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten,” Chief Compass said. “Tourists are walking in that direction, and they are getting preyed upon.”

Col. Henry Whitehorn, chief of the Louisiana State Police, said he heard of numerous instances of New Orleans police officers, many from flooded areas, turning in their badges.

“They indicated that they had lost everything and didn’t feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives,” Col. Whitehorn said.

Dr. Ruth Berggren, a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, told CNN last night that a sniper had opened fire outside the facility as National Guard vehicles prepared to evacuate patients.

A military helicopter tried to land at the convention center several times to drop off food and water. But the rushing crowd forced the copters to keep their distance. Troopers tossed the supplies to the crowd from 10 feet off the ground and flew away.

At least seven bodies were scattered outside the convention center, and hungry people broke through the steel doors to a food-service entrance and began pushing out pallets of water and juice and whatever else they could find.

At one point, the crowd began to chant, “We want help! We want help!”

Later, a woman, screaming, went on the front steps of the convention center and led the crowd in reciting the 23rd Psalm, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered with a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet. Flies buzzed over the corpse in the stifling heat.

“They’ve been teasing us with buses for four days,” said 47-year-old Daniel Edwards.

“You can do everything for other countries, but you can’t do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military, but you can’t get them down here.”

Tourist Debbie Durso of Washington, Mich., said she asked a police officer for assistance and said his response was, “Go to hell — it’s every man for himself.”

“This is just insanity,” she said.

The Superdome, where about 25,000 people were being evacuated by bus to the Houston Astrodome, descended into chaos as well.

Huge crowds, hoping to finally escape the stifling confines of the stadium, jammed the main concourse outside the dome, spilling out over the ramp to the Hyatt hotel next door — a seething sea of tense, unhappy people packed shoulder to shoulder up to the barricades, where heavily armed National Guardsmen stood.

At the front of the line, heavily armed policemen and guardsmen stood watch and handed out water as refugees struggled onto buses. At the back end of the line, some jammed against police barricades in the rain. Luggage, bags of clothes, pillows and blankets were strewn in the puddles.

Many people had dogs and were told they had to leave them behind. A police officer took a puppy from a little boy, who cried until he threw up.

“Snowball, Snowball,” he cried. The policeman told a reporter that he didn’t know what would happen to the dog.

Col. Whitehorn said authorities are working on establishing a temporary jail to hold those accused of looting and other crimes.

“These individuals will not take control of the city of New Orleans,” the state police chief said.

The first of hundreds of busloads of people evacuated from the Superdome arrived early yesterday at their new temporary home — another sports arena, the Houston Astrodome, 330 miles away.

In Texas, the governor’s office said the state has agreed to take in 50,000 refugees from Katrina in San Antonio and Dallas, in addition to the almost 25,000 expected in Houston.

Speaking last night on CNN, Mr. Chertoff said the evacuation of New Orleans should be completed by the end of the weekend.

The ambulance service in charge of taking the sick and injured from the Superdome suspended flights after a shot was reported fired at a military helicopter.

The military, which was overseeing the removal of the able-bodied by buses, continued the evacuation without interruption, said National Guard Lt. Col. Pete Schneider.

A National Guard military policeman was shot in the leg as he and a man scuffled for the policeman’s rifle, Police Capt. Ernie Demmo said. The man was arrested.

“These are good people. These are just scared people,” Capt. Demmo said.

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