Thursday, September 1, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered 1,500 police officers to leave their search-and-rescue mission last night and return to the streets to stop looting that has turned increasingly hostile as the city plunges deeper into chaos.

“They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas — hotels, hospitals — and we’re going to stop it right now,” Mr. Nagin said.

The number of officers called off the search-and-rescue mission amounts to virtually the entire police force in New Orleans.

Police previously had been ordered to ignore the gangs of thieves and concentrate on lifesaving efforts. That policy, however, resulted in what the mayor termed “chaos” on the city’s streets.

“It’s really difficult because my opinion of the looting is it started with people running out of food, and you can’t really argue with that too much,” Mr. Nagin said. “Then it escalated to this kind of mass chaos where people are taking electronic stuff and all that.”

In yesterday’s chaos, thieves commandeered a forklift and used it to push up the storm shutters and break the glass of a pharmacy.

The crowd stormed the store, carrying out so much ice, water and food that supplies dropped from their arms as they ran. The street was littered with packages of Ramen noodles and other items.

Looters also chased down a state police truck full of food. The New Orleans police chief ran off looters while city officials commandeered equipment from an Office Depot. During a state of emergency, authorities have broad powers to take private supplies and buildings for their use.

At one point, two officers drew their guns on the looters, but the thieves left without incident. One of the officers said he is not going to arrest anyone for snatching up food and water.

One young man was seen wading through chest-high floodwaters, carrying a case of soda, after looting a grocery store.

Managers at a nursing home were prepared to cope with the power outages and had enough food for days, but then the looting began. The home’s bus driver was forced to surrender the vehicle to carjackers.

John Matessino, president of the Louisiana Hospital Association, said he had not heard of anyone breaking into the hospitals, but he said thieves had entered the parking garage at one hospital and were stealing car batteries and stereos.

New Orleans’ homeland security chief, Terry Ebbert, said looters were breaking into stores all over town and stealing guns. He said gangs of armed men are moving around the city. At one point, criminals on the street fired at officers stranded on the roof of a hotel.

Authorities said that a police officer was shot in the head and that a looter was wounded in a shootout. The officer and looter were expected to survive.

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