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Residents of New Orleans arm themselves in chaotic city

NEW ORLEANS—Peter Vazquez is strapped.

Barbecuing lamb on a grill outside his home in New Orleans' historic Algiers Point neighborhood Friday, Vazquez flashed a 9 mm Beretta from his pants pocket and showed visitors a 12-gauge shotgun that was readily accessible in the house.

"Oh, you've got to carry," said Vazquez, a 40-year-old restaurant owner.

As tired and frantic New Orleans residents waited for law enforcement officials to restore order, many decided to take matters into their own hands to protect their streets and property from looting.

With stories spreading of police cars being shot at and of hot-wired school buses backing up and emptying houses of all their possessions, Vazquez and others around the city have been packing heat. A lot of it.

"I've been carrying it for the last couple of days," he said. He said the police have been invisible in his neighborhood; police officials have said they're vastly overwhelmed and were waiting for the National Guard help that began arriving Friday.

As residents fended for themselves, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin took to the airwaves, blasting President Bush and the federal hurricane relief effort. He warned residents to be aware of desperate people searching for food and water, or drugs to feed their habits.

"I need reinforcements. I need troops, man. I need 500 buses, man," he said in a radio interview.

The feeling of helplessness prompted Ed Land, also of the Algiers Point neighborhood, to put his 9 mm automatic in a hip holster and strap it on as he cleaned up hurricane debris from his property.

"A guy in the next street over shot at three individuals—one definitely got hit," said Land, 51. "He thinks he killed one that died a couple of streets over."

One of Land's neighbors walked up and down the street Thursday with a beer in one hand and a shotgun in the other. The man spray-painted a warning and a criticism on the wood he placed over one of the windows of his house to protect them from the storm: "Looters Will Be Shot. Bush Sucks. Where's FEMA?"

The somewhat secure feeling of having weaponry was shattered for Algiers Point residents Friday when a thundering series of blasts rocked the neighborhood at about 4:30 a.m.

After the explosions subsided, a few residents wandered to the top of the Mississippi River levee. They could see that something—it was later reported to be an abandoned warehouse—was in flames, and a huge pillar of black smoke could be seen rising above the night sky and drifting across the river.

Standing on the levee across the river from the blaze, Wayne Janak described riding out his first hurricane—he'd moved to New Orleans just a year earlier. While his neighbors evacuated before the storm, he stayed behind; they left him their keys and pets. His house suffered relatively minor hurricane damage.

But the chaos after the storm left him bewildered—and scared.

Standing on the darkened levee, Janak could see a flashlight on the street below. He heard the sounds of what sounded like a grocery cart. He shined his light down, and the people pushing the cart shined back.

"I hope they're not armed," somebody said.

"Don't matter," Janak replied. "I got two guns. I've been armed since this thing started, and I swore I'd never do that."

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

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