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New Orleans collapses into chaos as Katrina's destruction spreads

NEW ORLEANS—As relief workers on Thursday continued their scramble to evacuate thousands of people stranded here, their efforts were complicated by chaos spurred by increasing looting, shootings and panic across the city.

Police officers, deputies from across Louisiana and even Drug Enforcement Administration agents swarmed the waterlogged city Thursday, trying to maintain order. Their efforts will be bolstered by thousands of National Guard officers, military police and sheriff's deputies from around the country who have been dispatched to the area.

The number of troops dedicated to the Gulf Coast region is expected to reach 28,000 by Friday—the largest U.S. military deployment ever for a natural disaster.

But for all the numbers, little security presence was evident at and around the city's raucous convention center, where hundreds upon hundreds of refugees crowded inside and on streets strewn with heaps of garbage.

A Miami Herald reporter saw at least three dead bodies—one sitting in a chair on a street median, covered in a yellow blanket.

"I've seen so much," said Lorraina Brown, 37, who was trying her best to shield her 16-year-old autistic daughter from the chaos in the streets. "I saw two teenagers fighting. One was beating the other with an ice cooler."

Disorder has reigned in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina battered the city Monday morning and stranded thousands upon thousands in flooded neighborhoods and at relief centers downtown.

Overwhelmed officials are caught in a maddening back-and-forth between the massive search-and-rescue campaign and the need to prevent the violence that makes the relief efforts more difficult, even impossible.

With more help on the way, officials have pledged to gain control, ensure safety and punish those who've resorted to violence and thievery. But the continued anarchy Thursday—a full three days after the hurricane—left many in the city wondering whether the assembling army would be sufficient.

Looting began Tuesday and has continued largely unabated. Vehicles carrying refugees have been carjacked and a hospital near the Superdome took sporadic sniper fire Thursday.

Search-and-rescue crews have been shot at. So have reporters and camera crews that have descended on the city.

In the Superdome, where evacuees were housed temporarily, the crowd swelled to more than 20,000 as the New Orleans police superintendent visited with known gang leaders to ease tensions. Police shuffled them to separate areas of the dome.

Lizzy Kelley, 48, was on the Crescent City Bridge trying in vain to get help after she and her family spent the night in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which was overflowing with panicked people, human waste and flaring tempers. Kelley said she was threatened at gunpoint, slept on a hard concrete floor and waded down a flooded stairwell where she encountered floating carcasses of dead animals.

"It was just a nightmare, nothing but a nightmare,'" Kelley said, noting that she and her family were pushed aside by the incoming tide of people who threatened, "If you don't make room, you're going to die." She pledged not to return to the emergency shelter, no matter how bad it got outside, because "they say they're going to burn down the convention center tonight."

The sense of panic was only exacerbated by rumors: Many swore young girls and boys had been raped and killed in the Superdome, but security officials denied it happened.

At one point, New Orleans police officers stationed downtown said there was shooting near the convention center. But later, a deputy from a neighboring parish sheriff's office said there hadn't been a shooting; instead, people were tossing water bottles from the bridge above the convention center to people below. The ones that hit the ground and exploded caused a panic.

Capt. Michael Pfeiffer, 51, the chief of staff for the bureau chief for operations of the New Orleans police department, said at least some of the chaos can be blamed on desperation. "They haven't eaten for a couple of days," Pfeiffer said. "At first they were just desperate people. Now they're doing desperate things."

Citizens began to fend for themselves in the absence of real authority.

As helicopters looped the city, residents could be seen protecting their homes with shotguns. Driving up historic Magazine Street in the city, men in shorts could be seen walking in front of their storefronts with shotguns or pistols.

The New Orleans police department's communication system failed during the storm, and the department is working to restore power. Until then, police districts are working their own areas often unaware of what's happening elsewhere in the city.

Pfeiffer is most worried about the death toll in the city's lower Ninth Ward where he used to work. More than 100,000 people live in the neighborhood that was inundated by water and few evacuated. The lower ninth one is of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Citywide, Pfeiffer said the death toll is unimaginable. "How many people died on 9-11?" he asked. "3,000? Here, add a zero to that."

On Thursday afternoon, heavily armed Louisiana state troopers and DEA agents locked and loaded their weapons in a parking lot across from the Hyatt Regency hotel. They climbed aboard a tan Army troop transport, headed for the Superdome.

"We're just trying to mobilize to bring calm to a chaotic situation," said state trooper Lt. Col. Stanley Griffin. "It's our sworn duty."

John Love, 47, and his fiancee, Rita Burbank, finally arrived at the evacuation staging area near the Hyatt. They had commandeered a U-Haul truck, which apparently had been abandoned by looters.

They were shocked at the lawlessness they saw while driving in.

"It's disgusting," Burbank said.

National Guard Sgt. First Class Clint Hobdy and his crew were stationed nearby and watched helplessly as looters ransacked several cars—just down the block from the Superdome.

"We can't do anything. We can't make arrests. We're here to keep the peace," Hobdy said.

At the convention center, where evacuees were sent to get food and water that soon ran out, several New Orleans police cars swooped in and officers armed with rifles and clad in body gear jumped out and barked orders. But minutes later, they were gone.

People sat on sidewalks littered with a carpet of bottles, discarded wrappers, crushed cans and clothes. Some people picked through mountains of wet, soaked jeans.

Two helicopters dropped off food for people camped out on the streets. Little kids ran dangerously close to the whirling machines, said Tony Merrill, 45, who said there were no police officers there to distribute the food.

"Right now, this is chaos. The police circle around in their cars and their sirens but never actually stop," he said.

Leon Hamilton, 37, a tourist from Chicago, who spent five excruciating days at the center, described the police presence there like this: "Nonexistent. You can't use enough superlatives to describe how bad it is."


(Knight Ridder correspondents Drew Brown, Jack Douglas Jr. and Jay Root contributed to this report. It was compiled by Knight Ridder correspondent Stephen Henderson.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA

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