Since Larry Mounce and his boys from Baton Rouge began fishing people from their homes in the underwater 9th Ward, more than 900 people have accepted their offer of a ride to dry land.

Yet if Mounce's search and rescue crews had picked a different spot to launch their boats, the majority of those people would still be stranded.

Rescue work, like so much else in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is largely random. Despite the promise of federal troops and greater coordination on a day when President Bush cruised over the ruined portions of the city in a helicopter, relief continued to arrive in a trickle, not a flood. Mounce, assistant fire chief in Baton Rouge, said he is ready to sacrifice some independence to a "big, organized event."

Preston Wright sees it the same way. He and his parents accepted a boat ride from the second-floor rooms where they had taken refuge. They were dry there, and well-fed, but marooned by the water that poured into the city from Lake Pontchartrain. After a fruitless hour trying to find out where to learn how to leave the city, they decided to return to their starting point.

"We were a lot better off there than we'd be out here," Wright said. "They've got no one in charge. Why don't they have the military in here to get people out? Forget about Iraq. Help the needy people here." The threesome picked up their belongings and stood at the water's edge, waiting for a skiff to take them back into the flood.

"Some people say they'd rather sit there and die on their front porch," said Jason Dupree, a boat operator for the Bossier City Fire Department. "They've been up to the Superdome and back. It's supposed to be a mandatory evacuation, but we can't make them leave."

Conditions improved somewhat Friday in New Orleans, if far more slowly than stranded residents had hoped or expected. Lines of buses arrived, snaking over a Mississippi River bridge, but far fewer than needed. Military helicopters airlifted thousands of people from the city to the Louis Armstrong International Airport, only to produce severe bottlenecks as outbound aircraft proved unable to keep up. Guard members raced across the tarmac carrying litters holding seriously ill patients.

Landry Mathieu, U.S. Air Force retired, watched from the tarmac's edge. He said, "I've seen it in other countries -- the Philippines, Desert Storm, Vietnam. I've seen it all, but I never dreamed I'd see it here. It's not even imaginable."

Shortly afterward, like an apparition, two tall air-conditioned buses rumbled past the checkpoints into the city and onto the elevated highway. A half-dozen young men in Kevlar vests carried assault rifles. The doors opened in front of a random group of refugees and the drivers welcomed them aboard. Taking matters in hand, like the Baton Rouge search and rescue teams, an oil company had provided the buses -- and the security detail.

A band of Christian worshipers abandoned the Big Easy Church Friday morning, determined to make their way out of town. They saw bodies floating in the street and dragged two with them because it seemed the decent thing to do. A member of the congregation said the police told them, "Let them float away. We're not dealing with bodies now."

Gavin Fuller is among the New Orleans residents making the calculation that staying put is a better bet than being bused or flown out. Safe and sound in a dry region of the city that includes the mostly upscale Garden District and Uptown neighborhood, he and three friends have been delivering stockpiled food to needier neighbors.

Lala Toye made a similar reckoning. At midafternoon, she was wheeling an oxygen tank for her husband on Magazine, a well-known Garden District address, heading to a friend's house. She could have quit town but did not want to leave her dog and two cats.

Meanwhile, she planned to bathe, in her friend's pool. "I look like a turnip truck," the white-haired Toye said.

Back on the Interstate, Mark Smith trudged up the blistering highway. He wore around him, like a giant necklace, his tuba. "If I leave this," he said, "I might as well jump in the water myself."

Smith, known inevitably as "Tuba" to his friends, had stuck with members of the Tornado Brass Band since the storm. They found misery at the fetid convention center, where they were rattled by violence and the sight of people who died where they lay. The tribulation will be good for his music.

"I've been through the storms, the rain, the headaches, the pain, the suffering and all the walking," Smith said. "When I get settled, a tune's going to come to my head."

Nearby, Ralph St. Pe, 48, managed to call his brother. It made him cry. "Tell Mom I'm okay, bro," St. Pe said. Wiping away tears, he said, "He's going to get word to my wife. That's Christmas."