NEW ORLEANS - As a bus caravan trucked thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims 350 miles to Texas, Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded Thursday for more help for his drowned city.
"This is a desperate SOS," he said.
All around him, New Orleans was falling apart. Looters set fire to a mall. The evacuation of 25,000 storm victims from the Superdome was suspended for a while early Thursday after someone took a shot at one of the rescue helicopters.
At the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, police got into a shootout with a crowd of storm survivors, killing one man, then chased away a reporter and photographer who stumbled onto the incident.
The scene at the convention center was particularly chaotic. At least 15,000 people were crammed inside, and outside the sidewalks were packed with people who had been waiting for days for buses that did not come.
At least seven corpses lay scattered around. Hungry, desperate people broke through steel doors to a food service entrance and pushed out pallets of water and juice.
Police Chief Eddie Compass said he sent in 88 officers to quell the growing unrest at the convention center, but they were beaten back by an angry mob.
"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."
Local and state officials blamed Washington.
New Orleans emergency operations chief Terry Ebbert said the slow evacuation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency had turned into an "incredibly explosive situation."
"This is a national disgrace," he said. "FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans."
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said state officials hoped for a faster federal response. President Bush defended his administration's efforts to deal with the largest natural disaster in the nation's history. "I hope people don't play politics during this period of time," he said.
Federal officials promised to deploy thousands more troops to help restore order. The Senate approved and sent to the House a $10.5-billion down payment in relief aid to the Gulf Coast. But House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., questioned the idea of rebuilding New Orleans.
"It doesn't make sense to me," Hastert told the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. Later Hastert backed away from his comments.
Said Urban League president Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans: "A great American city is fighting for its life."
A seething mass
All day, buses rolled out of New Orleans bound for Houston, carrying some of the thousands of refugees who had sought shelter at the Superdome only to endure days of suffering after the air conditioning and bathrooms failed.
By day's end about 5,000 refugees made it to Houston's Astrodome, but only 2,000 cots awaited them. Houston is supposed to get 25,000 refugees, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that 25,000 more refugees would relocate to San Antonio, while Dallas would host another 25,000.
At the front of the Superdome bus line, the weary refugees waded through ankle-deep water, grabbed a bottle of water from state troopers and happily hopped aboard. At the back of the line, people jammed against police barricades in the rain. Refugees passed out and had to be lifted hand-over-hand to medics.
Pets were not allowed on the buses, and when a police officer confiscated a little boy's dog, the child cried until he vomited.
"Snowball, Snowball," he cried.
Almost as fast as evacuees boarded the buses, thousands more hurried over from nearby hotels and other buildings, hoping to climb onto the buses.
In the seething mass of tense, unhappy, people, fights broke out. After a teenager was taken away by police for fighting, Capt. John Pallerre of the Texas Air Force National Guard told the crowd: "I have kids here who are crying and frightened. ... Be adults. We're going to get you out of here."
The ambulance service in charge of taking the sick and injured from the Superdome suspended flights after a shot was fired at a military helicopter.
Rescuers trying to aid New Orleans' hospitals also came under attack, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan.
"There are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them,"You better come get my family,' " she said.
On wet curbsides and soggy medians, people who survived the hurricane wondered if they would now perish in its aftermath.
Evangela Youngblood, 35, pushed a plastic mail cart carrying three children, ages 4, 7 and 9, toward the foyer of an empty apartment complex where they hoped to sleep for the night.
Although they had been rescued from the floodwaters, the Youngbloods were now among the thousands waiting for a bus to take them away from their ruined city.
"Can we get some water?" Evangela yelled as members of the Army National Guard drove past with boxes of bottled water. No one replied.
"Nothing but a nightmare'
At the New Orleans convention center, tensions flared among 15,000 to 20,000 people who had complained they had been dropped off by rescuers but given no food, no water and no medicine.
"We are out here like pure animals. We don't have help," said the Rev. Isaac Clark, 68.
Outside the convention center, an old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. An elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered by a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.
"I don't treat my dog like that," said Daniel Edwards, 47. "I buried my dog."
Near the convention center, commercial buses were lined up, going nowhere. "They've been teasing us with buses for four days," Edwards said.
Lizzy Kelley, 48, and her family said the convention center overflowed with panicked people, human waste and dangerous tempers. Kelley said she was threatened at gunpoint, slept on a concrete floor and waded down a flooded stairwell, where she found the floating carcasses of animals.
"It was just a nightmare, nothing but a nightmare," Kelley said.
The dire conditions at the convention center drove Mayor Nagin to issue his SOS. "Right now we are out of resources at the convention center and don't anticipate enough buses," he said. "We need buses. Currently the convention center is unsanitary and unsafe and we're running out of supplies."
Many refugees were running out of hope.
Alton Love and his 6-year-old daughter, Adrian, wandered the streets Thursday after spending nights on a scorching highway.
"Where's our government response? They keep telling us they're coming and nobody's there yet," said Love, a 38-year-old plumber. "My little daughter, she's scared to death. Everybody else is gone. We're just left here."
Information from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, WWL-TV, the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the Associated Press was used in this story.