NEW ORLEANS - Hurricane survivors faced mounting danger yesterday as shelters turned violent, a hospital staff came under sniper fire, and emergency food and drinking water were scarce in a city awash in floodwater. Some of the lucky ones escaped from the Superdome on buses bound for Texas, while thousands massed outside the Convention Center, where several people died waiting for help, their shrouded bodies left on the sidewalk.
Thousands of National Guard military police arrived to help restore order, but not before the street violence of the past few days took a horrifying turn. A hospital crew in the midst of moving a patient was fired on by a sniper, and the police chief said rapes were reported in the Convention Center, where some officers were beaten by an angry crowd. A Coast Guard commander told of rescue crews being threatened and shot at.
"This is a desperate SOS," Mayor Ray Nagin told Cable News Network. "Right now, we are out of resources at the convention center and don't anticipate enough buses. We need buses. Currently the Convention Center is unsanitary and unsafe, and we're running out of supplies."
A military helicopter tried to land at the Convention Center several times to drop off food and water. But the rushing crowd forced it to back off. Soldiers tossed the supplies to the crowd from 10 feet off the ground and flew away. The Coast Guard had rescued about 2,900 stranded people by helicopter and boat.
Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, said the federal agency intended to "send an unambiguous message that we will not tolerate lawlessness or violence." But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is under his control, came under widespread attack for tardy intervention that allowed a lawless atmosphere to fester. Nagin's emergency chief called FEMA's performance a "national disgrace."
"They have M-16s, and they're locked and loaded," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said of 300 National Guard troops who landed in New Orleans fresh from duty in Iraq. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."
President Bush called Congress back to Washington from August recess to pump $10.5 billion more into the federal relief campaign after FEMA acknowledged being out of money. The Senate approved the measure last night. Bush was expected to ask for more money in the coming few weeks, aides said.
Much of New Orleans was deserted, submerged in contaminated floodwater on the fourth day since Hurricane Katrina roared through Monday morning, breaching levees that held back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. The giant storm also battered Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
Repair work on the ruptured levees could be finished today, which would be the first step in the task of pumping water out of the city. Black Hawk helicopters dropped 1.5-ton sandbags to plug a gaping hole in a canal wall yesterday as the Army Corp of Engineers began planning to bring in new pumps to replace those damaged by flooding. It was the first indication that the city's vital network of 22 pumps is seriously damaged.
"Once we seal those two places, that should stop the water from going in," Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Corps of Engineers, told reporters yesterday. "Our real focus right now is getting the flow stopped so we can get in and drain the city."
In an interview with an Illinois newspaper Wednesday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert questioned the wisdom of spending billions to rebuild a city several feet below sea level.
Democratic lawmakers from Louisiana were quick to disagree yesterday, and Hastert sought to clarify the comment during the day.
Ronnie Jones, the former chief spokesman for Louisiana State Police, had left his home in the New Orleans area and taken refuge in a Houston hotel, where he watched the frightening events unfold on television.
"There has been a total breakdown in the local, state and now federal response," he said in an e-mail. "Nobody at the state/local level was prepared for this scenario."
Outside New Orleans' Convention Center, the sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement.
At least seven bodies were outside, and hungry people broke through the steel doors to a food service entrance and began pushing out pallets of water and juice and whatever else they could find.
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 was dead in her wheelchair, covered with a blanket. Another body lay beside her, wrapped in a sheet.
"I don't treat my dog like that," said Daniel Edwards, 47, as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. "I buried my dog."
"You can do everything for other countries, but you can't do nothing for your own people," he added.
The street outside the center, above the floodwaters, smelled of urine and feces, and was choked with diapers, bottles and garbage.