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Relief workers confront 'urban warfare'

Violence disrupts evacuation, rescue efforts in New Orleans

A helicopter drops sandbags during efforts to repair a broken levee Thursday in New Orleans.




Disasters (General)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Violence disrupted relief efforts Thursday in New Orleans as authorities rescued desperate residents still trapped in the flooded city and tried to evacuate thousands of others living among corpses and human waste.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown said his agency was attempting to work "under conditions of urban warfare."

Police snipers were stationed on the roof of their precinct, trying to protect it from armed miscreants roaming seemingly at will.

Officers warned a CNN crew to stay off the streets because of escalating danger, and cautioned others about attempted shootings and rapes by groups of young men.

"This is a desperate SOS," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said in a statement Thursday afternoon, with thousands of people stranded at the city's convention center with no food, water or electricity -- and fading hope. (See video on the desperate conditions -- 4:36 )

Residents expressed growing frustration with the disorder evident on the streets, raising questions about the coordination and timeliness of relief efforts.

"Why is no one in charge?" asked one frustrated evacuee at the convention center. "I find it hard to believe."

Government officials insisted they were putting forth their best efforts and pleaded for patience, saying further help was on the way.

One displaced resident at the Louisiana Superdome issued a warning to authorities who may be headed to the stadium, where up to 30,000 people sought refuge after Monday's Hurricane Katrina and now await evacuation to Texas by bus.

"Please don't send the National Guard," Raymond Cooper told CNN by telephone. "Send someone with a bullhorn outside the place that can talk to these people first."

He described scenes of lawlessness and desperation, with people simply dragging corpses into corners.

"They have quite a few people running around here with guns," he said. "You got these young teenage boys running around up here raping these girls."

Elsewhere, groups of armed men wandered the streets, buildings smoldered and people picked through stores for what they could find.

Charity Hospital, one of several facilities attempting to evacuate patients, was forced to halt the effort after coming under sniper fire. (Full story)

Recovery efforts also continued Thursday in Mississippi, where Katrina smashed entire neighborhoods and killed at least 185 people.

"We got hit by the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told CNN Thursday.

'Thousands' dead

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco gave the grim news that "thousands" of people died in the hurricane and its aftermath in New Orleans and surrounding parishes, though she said no official count had been compiled.

Brown said those who ignored the city's mandatory evacuation order bore some responsibility.

"I think the death toll may go into the thousands and, unfortunately, that's going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings," he told CNN. (Full story)

Stranded people remained in buildings, on roofs, in the backs of trucks or gathered in large groups on higher ground, with little knowledge of when -- or if -- help would come.

Despite the deteriorating conditions in the city, hurricane survivors from neighboring Plaquemines Parish have started streaming into the city, according to Nagin.

"We are overwhelmed and out of resources, but we welcome them with open arms and will figure this out together," the mayor said in a written statement.

Police officers told CNN that some of their fellow officers had simply stopped showing up for duty, cutting manpower by 20 percent or more in some precincts.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday that 4,200 National Guard troops trained as military police will be deployed in New Orleans over the next three days, which he said would quadruple the law enforcement presence in the city.

Pentagon officials said the first contingent of 100 military police officers would arrive at Louis Armstrong International Airport at 10 p.m. (11 p.m. ET) -- combat-ready for immediate deployment in New Orleans.

'Unsanitary and unsafe'

Blanco said Thursday she has requested the mobilization of 40,000 National Guard troops to restore order and assist in relief efforts.

A humanitarian catastrophe unfolded at the convention center, where thousands of increasingly frustrated people waited for help amid dead bodies, feces and garbage.

Numerous bodies could be seen, both inside and outside the facility, and one man died of a seizure while a CNN crew was at the scene.

A National Guard helicopter dropped food and water Thursday afternoon, although the amount was far short of enough to meet the needs of the throngs that had gathered.

Nagin advised those gathered at the center to march over the Crescent City Connection bridge to the west bank of the Mississippi River to find relief in neighboring Jefferson Parish.

"The convention center is unsanitary and unsafe, and we are running out of supplies," said Nagin, adding that officials did not expect to have enough buses for evacuations.

Brown told CNN Thursday evening that federal officials only found out about the convention center crisis earlier in the day, and that he had since directed that "all available resources" be made available there.

Boat rescue teams looking for Katrina survivors told CNN they had been ordered to stand down Thursday by FEMA officials concerned about security.

However, FEMA issued a statement from Washington denying it had suspended operations, though the agency conceded there had been "isolated incidents where security has become an issue."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that the Coast Guard has rescued about 3,000 people from flooded areas in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes.

At the city's airport, a field hospital set up by FEMA was "overwhelmed" with patients, a medical team commander said.

Equipment normally used to move luggage was instead ferrying patients to a treatment center and to planes and buses for evacuation.

"I do not have the words in my vocabulary to describe what is happening here," said Ozro Henderson. "'Catastrophe' and 'disaster' don't explain it."

Outside the Superdome, throngs of people waiting for a bus ride to Texas completely covered an outside plaza, where they waited in the heat and rain.

Buses ferried displaced residents to Houston's Astrodome, which will serve as a shelter until FEMA can come up with more permanent housing.

"We're finding more and more people coming out of the woodwork," Brown said. "They're appearing in places we didn't know they existed."

Blanco said more school buses would be brought in from across Louisiana to increase the pace of the evacuation.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it expected to complete the sealing off of the 17th Street Canal, where a flood-control levee breached. (Recovery efforts)

Other developments

  • In Washington, the Senate convened in special session Thursday night and approved a $10.5 billion disaster relief request from the Bush administration. The House is expected to do the same when it takes up the matter Friday. (Full story)
  • Gasoline prices spiked as high as $5 a gallon in some areas Thursday as consumers fearing a gas shortage raced to the pumps. The runup in prices prompted Bush to warn against gouging and to encourage Americans to conserve. (Full story)
  • CNN's Chris Lawrence and Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.

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