NEW ORLEANS - Conditions deteriorated rapidly yesterday for tens of thousands of desperate survivors of Hurricane Katrina as authorities began a major evacuation amid predictions that the battered, flooded city will be uninhabitable for months.
"There is no water, no electricity, no food, no sanitation," said Lt. Kevin Cowan, a spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. "People cannot live in New Orleans."
The search for temporary homes stretched to the Astrodome in Houston, where thousands trapped in the Superdome here were expecting to be taken in a caravan of at least 450 buses.
Mayor Ray Nagin predicted that the death toll in New Orleans alone would be "most likely thousands." In Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., the number of deaths passed 100 and continued climbing as some residents suffered their third day without a meal or drink of water and looters hit the stores.
In New Orleans, rescue workers were still pulling people to safety, out of the reach of the filthy mix of storm water, sewage and dead animals. Heavily armed police tried to keep order, but there were further reports of lawlessness.
Last night, Nagin said he was ordering 1,500 police to quit their search-and-rescue missions and return to the streets to stop looting.
Even as the federal government launched a huge relief and rescue effort yesterday, it was unclear how, when and where officials would find accommodations for the homeless. No one knows how many of the city's nearly 470,000 residents would find sanctuary on their own, but emergency agencies were expecting numbers that would dwarf previous U.S. disasters.
President Bush flew over the Gulf states devastated by Hurricane Katrina and declared the storm "one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history."
Federal agencies led by the Department of Homeland Security described yesterday a range of actions, including the distribution of water, ice, food and medical assistance. The military is sending aircraft and ships in addition to the deployment of thousands of members of the National Guard.
It was an open question yesterday whether relief efforts would reach people fast enough. Officials reported that two elderly people had died in the Superdome and that one person had apparently committed suicide. In the absence of phone service and with transportation all but nonexistent in most areas, help was elusive.
Nagin estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 people remained in the city and said 14,000 to 15,000 could be evacuated daily.
Levee gaps plugged
There was good news: The flow of water through the breached levees had slowed or stopped.
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told CNN that "nature has taken over"' and that floodwater from Lake Pontchartrain had stopped rising.
Engineers expect the water to start draining out of the city and into the lake through the same breach. Once the water stops flowing, it will make repairs easier, Strock said
Corps officials said they plan to use helicopters to drop 5-ton sandbags into the gaps - a breach 300 feet wide along the 17th Street canal and another 400 feet long in the London Avenue canal.
"It's a significant logistical nightmare," said Col. Richard P. Wagenaar, district commander of the Corps of Engineers. "We need to get the water levels down so that we can access the pumping stations and repair them."
But Strock did not say when those repairs would be complete.
"We are months away from normalcy" in the most-affected parts of New Orleans, he said, estimating that it would take "weeks, perhaps a month, to get the water down."
Draining the water would mark only the beginning of a lengthy recovery for New Orleans. For the city and the battered states along the Gulf of Mexico, resettlement and rebuilding loom as extraordinarily complex and costly.
Bush said the Gulf Coast "will take years" to recover from the destruction. Mississippi suffered enormous losses.
In Gulfport, police, whose station was wiped out by the storm, imposed a 6 p.m. curfew. To make room for suspected looters, a Biloxi judge released dozens of people being held at the Harrison County jail on lesser charges.
In Louisiana, the problems extend beyond New Orleans. About 57,000 homes and businesses are without power in Baton Rouge, and 9,000 people are in Red Cross shelters there, said Councilman Michael Walker of East Baton Rouge Parish.
Headed to Astrodome
Texas offered the most help initially, agreeing to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's "urgent request" to take the 24,000 Katrina refugees from the Superdome and house them in the 40-year-old Astrodome.
"We are all in this together," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said on his Web site. "We will continue to do what it takes, from offering assistance to offering prayers, to get through this together, as one American family."