AARON SHAROCKMAN, CHRIS TISCH and CRAIG PITTMAN
Sending survivors to Houston, a hard line on looting. Any solution, even short term, is welcomed.
NEW ORLEANS - The hopelessness hanging over this flooded city deepened Wednesday as fires burned unchecked, looters ransacked stores and the mayor predicted the death toll from Hurricane Katrina could climb into the thousands.
Even as engineers struggled to plug holes in the levees, federal officials assembled 500 buses that will carry 25,000 storm survivors to Houston's Astrodome.
Mayor Ray Nagin said the bus caravan was necessary for a total evacuation because the city "will not be functional for two three months."
As fires burned from broken natural-gas mains, the skies above the city buzzed with helicopters. Gunfire crackled sporadically around the city as looters by the hundreds roamed the streets with seeming impunity.
Through it all, helicopters, warships and elite SEAL water-rescue teams, dispatched as part of one of the largest recovery efforts in U.S. history, worked to pluck storm survivors from rooftops. By day's end, Coast Guard officials said, they had rescued about 2,000 people.
But countless others were still waiting as darkness fell.
At least 500 students and faculty members at Xavier University were trapped in buildings around the campus, according to Freddie Peterson, a university police officer who hiked two miles to find the mayor and ask for help.
President Bush, who flew over the ruined city in Air Force One, said rebuilding New Orleans will take years. "This is going to be a difficult road," he said.
The situation had become so dire in nearby Jefferson Parish that parish council President Aaron Broussard announced he was declaring it a separate country named "Jeffertania," in hopes that would speed up federal aid.
"Please excuse my cynicism," Broussard said. "I just can't take this ineffectiveness anymore."
Broussard said the rampant looting is the result of desperate storm survivors doing what they have to do to survive.
"The basic jungle human instincts are starting to kick in because they have no food," he said. "It's getting ugly."No longer a refuge
Desperation mingled with dread in hundreds of messages posted on Web sites of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and WWL-TV, seeking the whereabouts of friends and relatives:
"Does anyone know what the condition of Camelia Street (is)? Have family that lives here," said one. "Family members in West Virginia have not heard from them since the day before the hurricane hit."
"My mother and brother are stranded. ... Can someone please contact authorities for rescue. I have not heard from them since Sunday," pleaded another.
By far the biggest gathering of survivors is at the storm-damaged Superdome, home to 25,000 people. Nearly 10,000 sought refuge there before Katrina hit Monday, and their numbers swelled as thousands more joined them after losing their homes.
Some refugees spent more than four hours wading through the warm floodwater to get to the Superdome. The journey is a perilous one: broken glass crunches underfoot, while the opaque water hides such obstacles as curbs.
George Jackson, 57, spent most of a day blowing up an inflatable pool so he could use it as a makeshift raft Wednesday to ferry his twin grandchildren and nephew to the Superdome. They had been holed up on the third floor of their apartment building, he said, but "we ran out of water ... so we had to leave."
Jackson waded through the streets, pushing the pool for more than two hours to reach the Superdome. Then he turned around to go back for other family members.
But with toilets failing, the air conditioning on the fritz and lighting limited, the Superdome is no longer much of a refuge.
"It's unsanitary, it's hot, those people haven't had showers or baths in four to five days," Nagin said. "People are walking up to me in tears."
Bernice Mueller, 71, had had enough Wednesday. She told National Guard troops at the Superdome's entrance that she was leaving. She would not stay another minute in the stadium.
"When I was a little girl I learned how to swim," she said. "I'm going to take my chances with the water and swim."To Houston, for now
Federal officials announced that today they will start a mammoth bus caravan to get the Superdome refugees a new home in Houston, 350 miles away. They said the bus convoy should take two days, but they weren't sure what would happen after that.
"Our view is the move to the Astrodome is temporary," said William Lokey of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "We're buying time until we can figure something out."
In addition to the Astrodome solution, FEMA officials have considered putting evacuees on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks, and so-called floating dormitories.
For the trip to Houston, FEMA will provide 475 buses. The Astrodome's schedule has been cleared through December for housing evacuees, said Kathy Walt, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The building has not been home to a professional sports team since the Houston Astros left five years ago.
The announcement was a badly needed morale boost for Superdome refugees. As emergency vehicles shuttled back and forth on one concourse, taking the sick and handicapped out first, a group of about 20 women clapped and sang Amazing Grace and other gospel tunes.
Some storm victims never made it to the Superdome.
Hundreds of refugees wandered up and down shattered Interstate 10, the only major freeway leading into New Orleans from the east, pushing shopping carts and laundry racks with what was left of their belongings.
WWL-TV showed footage of a storm-damaged apartment building surrounded by floodwaters where dozens of bedraggled survivors were crowded on the balconies. On the roof an adult waved a red flag and two children held up a banner that said, "Help Us."
Coast Guard choppers hopscotched around the city, either saving storm victims or dropping supplies to them.
One of those rescued was 40-year-old Kevin Montgomery, who spent three days shuttling between the attic of a one-story home and a canopy he built on the roof. Every once in a while, he said, he would see a body float by.
"It was terrible," he said. "All I could do was pass them by and hope that God takes care of the rest of that."Martial law
Looters were helping themselves, ransacking stores and houses for food, clothing, appliances and guns. Thieves chased a state police truck full of food.
In one neighborhood that had not been flooded, looters commandeered a forklift and used it to push up the storm shutters and break the glass of a Rite-Aid pharmacy.
Late Wednesday Nagin declared martial law and ordered police to take back the streets, even if it meant breaking off search-and-rescue missions.
The one hopeful note came at midday when officials with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers said the water levels between the city and Lake Pontchartrain had equalized. They said water had stopped spilling into New Orleans and even appeared to be falling.
But the danger was far from over.
The Army officials said they planned to use heavy-duty Chinook helicopters to drop 15,000-pound bags of sand and stone as early as Wednesday night into the 500-foot gap in one failed floodwall.
Army officials said it will be weeks before all the water that flowed into the city can be pumped back out. After that, it will take several years - and billions of dollars - to rebuild homes, offices and highways.
Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report, which used information from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, WWL-TV and the Associated Press.