A City of Despair and Lawlessness

Residents Wait to be Evacuated
New Orleans residents wait to be evacuated by helicopter from floodwater in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Smiley N., The Dallas Morning News via AP)
By Sam Coates and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 2, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 1 -- Federal and local authorities struggled Thursday to regain control of this ruined and lawless city, where tens of thousands of desperate refugees remained stranded with little hope of rescue and rapidly diminishing supplies of food and drinking water.

The chaos that has gripped New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina showed signs Thursday of spreading to Baton Rouge and along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, as weary refugees continued their slow and confused exodus to higher ground. Fresh waves of National Guard troops began pouring into the region in an attempt to quell the unrest, but large swaths of New Orleans and other sodden areas remained essentially ungoverned.

By the end of the day, the American Red Cross announced that its hurricane shelters were full, with an estimated 76,000 refugees at facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arkansas. The official death toll in Mississippi climbed above 100, and Louisiana officials repeated warnings that thousands could be dead in New Orleans. The Energy Department said about 1.8 million customers remained without power due to Katrina.

Those left behind in the Crescent City, including many with diabetes and other worsening health conditions, clung to rooftops, gathered on overpasses and bridges, and huddled on islands of dry ground, waiting for help that never came. Parents carried small children, and grown children carried their elderly parents through the flotsam. Corpses floated in fetid waters and lay amid the crowds of refugees. Helicopters airlifted hundreds of seriously ill patients to a makeshift field hospital at the city's airport.

At the storm-damaged Superdome, faltering efforts to transport as many as 23,000 refugees to the Astrodome in Houston were temporarily halted after a gunshot was reportedly fired at a military helicopter. Authorities continued to struggle with incidents of looting, carjackings and other violence.

The deepening crisis prompted urgent pleas for help from local officials and residents, many of whom pointedly criticized the federal government for what they said was a meager and slow response.

"This is a desperate SOS," New Orleans's beleaguered mayor, C. Ray Nagin, said at one point in the day.

In Washington, President Bush and his aides said the government acted as quickly as possible and announced a range of stepped-up response plans, including promises of thousands of extra troops and billions of dollars for recovery and rebuilding efforts. Congress returned early from its summer recess to consider emergency legislation for immediate aid. Late Thursday night, the Senate approved $10.5 billion in assistance, and the House will meet on Friday.

Bush urged Americans to curb gasoline consumption to ease the impact of refineries crippled by the storm. He also warned Gulf Coast residents, including those searching for water and food, not to break into businesses or commit other crimes during the crisis.

"There ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this," Bush said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"If people need water and food, we're going to do everything we can to get them water and food," Bush added. "It's very important for the citizens in all affected areas to take personal responsibility and assume a kind of a civic sense of responsibility so that the situation doesn't get out of hand, so people don't exploit the vulnerable."

The calls for calm came amid increasing signs of unrest among those who remain stranded in New Orleans. Continued engineering difficulties have kept 80 percent of the city flooded for more than three days.

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