Explosion, Chaos in Lawless New Orleans

9-2-05 - An explosion at a chemical depot jolted residents awake early Friday, illuminating the pre-dawn sky with red and orange flames over a city awash in corpses and under siege from looters. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Vibrations from the blast along the Mississippi River and a few miles east of the French Quarter were felt all the way downtown. A series of smaller blasts followed and then a pillar of acrid, black smoke.

To jittery residents of flood-devastated New Orleans, it was yet another fearful sign of collapse in a city that has been plunged into lawlessness and despair since Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore Monday morning.

Congress was rushing through a $10.5 billion aid package, the Pentagon promised to send in 1,400 National Guardsmen a day to stop the looting and President Bush planned to visit the region Friday. But city officials were seething with anger over what they called a slow federal response to a disaster that may have killed thousands.

"They don't have a clue what's going on down there," Mayor Ray Nagin told WWL-AM Thursday night. "They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn _ excuse my French everybody in America, but I am pissed."

In Washington, President Bush answered the criticism of the government response to the disaster by saying "the results are not acceptable" and pledged to bolster relief efforts with a personal trip to the Gulf Coast.

"We'll get on top of this situation," he said, "and we're going to help the people that need help."

Thursday saw thousands being evacuated by bus to Houston from the hot and stinking Superdome. Fistfights and fires erupted amid a seething sea of tense, suffering people who waited in a lines that stretched a half-mile to board yellow school buses. The looting continued.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco called the looters "hoodlums" and issued a warning to lawbreakers: Hundreds of National Guardsmen hardened on the battlefield in Iraq have landed in New Orleans.

"They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded," she said. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."

At the Superdome, group of refugees broke through a line of heavily armed National Guardsmen in a scramble to get on to the buses.

Nearby, about 15,000 to 20,000 people who had taken shelter at New Orleans Convention Center grew ever more hostile after waiting for buses for days amid the filth and the dead.

Police Chief Eddie Compass said there was such a crush around a squad of 88 officers that they retreated when they went in to check out reports of assaults.

"We have individuals who are getting raped, we have individuals who are getting beaten," Compass said. "Tourists are walking in that direction and they are getting preyed upon."

By Thursday evening, 11 hours after the military began evacuating the Superdome, the arena held 10,000 more people than it did at dawn. Evacuees from across the city swelled the crowd to about 30,000 because they believed the arena was the best place to get a ride out of town.

Some of those among the mostly poor crowd had been in the dome for four days without air conditioning, working toilets or a place to bathe. One military policeman was shot in the leg as he and a man scuffled for the MP's rifle. The man was arrested.

By late Thursday, the flow of refugees to the Houston Astrodome was temporarily halted after about 11,000 people had arrived _ less than half the estimated 23,000 people expected.

"We've actually reached capacity for the safety and comfort of the people inside there," American Red Cross spokeswoman Dana Allen said. She said people were "packed pretty tight" on the floor.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that Dallas would host 25,000 more refugees at Reunion Arena and 25,000 others would relocate to a San Antonio warehouse at KellyUSA, a city-owned complex that once was home to an Air Force base. Houston estimated as many as 55,000 people who fled the hurricane were staying in area hotels.

The blasts early Friday rocked a chemical storage facility along the river, said Lt. Michael Francis of the Harbor Police. At least two police boats could be seen at the scene and a hazardous material team was on route. Francis did not have any other information.

While floodwaters in New Orleans appeared to stabilize, efforts continued to plug three breaches in the levees that protect this bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city, which is wedged between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

Helicopters dropped sandbags into the breach and pilings were being pounded into the mouth of the canal Thursday to close its connection to the lake.

At least seven bodies were scattered outside the convention center, a staging area for those rescued from rooftops, attics and highways. The sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement.

A military helicopter tried to land at the convention center several times to drop off food and water. But the rushing crowd forced the choppers to back off. Troopers then tossed the supplies to the crowd from 10 feet off the ground and flew away.

"There's a lot of very sick people _ elderly ones, infirm ones _ who can't stand this heat, and there's a lot of children who don't have water and basic necessities to survive on," said Daniel Edwards, 47, outside the center. "We need to eat, or drink water at the very least."

An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered up by a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.

"I don't treat my dog like that," Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. "You can do everything for other countries, but you can't do nothing for your own people."

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA just learned about the situation at the convention center Thursday and quickly scrambled to provide food, water and medical care and remove the corpses.

The mayor lashed out at the government, saying: "I have no idea what they're doing, but I will tell you this: God is looking down on all this and if they're not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price because every day that we delay, people are dying and they're dying by the hundreds."

Across the city, law and order broke down, and the rescuers themselves were being shot at.

Tourist Debbie Durso of Washington, Mich., said she asked a police officer for assistance and his response was, "'Go to hell _ it's every man for himself.'"

FEMA officials said some operations had to be suspended in areas where gunfire had broken out.

Outside a looted Rite-Aid drugstore, some people were anxious to show they needed what they were taking. A gray-haired man who would not give his name pulled up his T-shirt to show a surgery scar and explained that he needs pads for incontinence.

"I'm a Christian," he said. "I feel bad going in there."

Hospitals struggled to evacuate critically ill patients who were dying for lack of oxygen, insulin or intravenous fluids. But when some hospitals try to airlift patients, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan said, "there are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, `You better come get my family.'"

To make matters worse, the chief of the Louisiana State Police said he heard of numerous instances of New Orleans police officers _ many of whom from flooded areas _ turning in their badges.

"They indicated that they had lost everything and didn't feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives," Col. Henry Whitehorn said.


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