Anarchy in New Orleans

Chaos rules with 200,000 still stranded in the city. Looting, gunfire and a death toll still unknown
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The effort to rescue as many as 200,000 people left stranded and hungry in the sinking city of New Orleans ran the risk of catastrophic breakdown last night, as under-prepared and under-resourced federal authorities faced the hostility of heavily armed residents seemingly bent on shooting their way out of town if necessary.

Authorities suspended the airlift of tens of thousands of people clustered in and around the Superdome stadium after a report of gunfire directed at a Chinook military helicopter - a major blow to the rescue effort. Fires raged in the immediate vicinity, making it too dangerous to activate either air or ground transport, a spokesman for a local ambulance service said.

Medical relief workers said they were afraid to offer their services because of the threatening presence of gunmen amid the stench and human misery of the Superdome, which has been without running water, electricity or basic food or medical supplies for two days. Gunmen simply took over working vehicles, looting those supplied with ice, fresh water, food or medicine.

In the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, the pilot of a medical rescue helicopter did not dare land outside a hospital after he saw a mob of 100 people, many of them armed, milling threateningly on the landing pad. Robberies, carjackings and even reports of rape and murder have all abounded in a city where the dead have been left lying where they fell or else float eerily down the rivers created by the water-filled streets. The death toll remains unknown, but official estimates of numbers in the thousands sound increasingly plausible in a city that appeared to be sliding into anarchy.

Survivors grew increasingly panicky last night as the transport they had been promised out of the city failed to materialise. "We are out here like pure animals. We don't have help," an elderly pastor told the Associated Press outside the city's Convention Centre, where corpses were laid out directly in front of the living. From the centre, a line of buses could be seen along the interstate highway, but they were going nowhere.

The streets, meanwhile, were filled with the stench of human waste, of discarded baby's nappies and empty bottles and assorted clumps of rubbish. Reporters were greeted with cries for help. One near-hysterical woman jumped up on to the steps of the Convention Centre and led the crowd in a recitation of the 23rd Psalm.

The Bush administration hurriedly sent a fresh consignment of 10,000 National Guardsmen into the disaster area to try to maintain order - bringing the total number of men in uniform to 28,000. President George Bush himself said he would adopt a "zero tolerance" attitude to lawlessness and urged people to work together. "I understand the anxiety of people on the ground," he told a television interviewer. "So there is frustration. But I want people to know there's a lot of help coming."

But the President found himself the target of an unusual degree of anger from across the political spectrum, as editorial writers demanded to know why he had sat out the first full day of the disaster, and present and former government officials detailed the numerous ways in which Congress and the White House has cut funding for the very emergency management programmes that the New Orleans area so desperately needs.

Despite the administration's efforts to catalogue the naval ships, helicopters, floating hospitals and essential supplies it was deploying, reports from along the Gulf Coast suggested it was not arriving nearly fast enough. "We're not getting any help yet," the fire chief in Biloxi, Mississippi, told the Knight-Ridder news service. "We need water. We need ice. I've been told it's coming, but we've got people in shelters who haven't had a drink since the storm."

Local officials already overwhelmed by the scale of the catastrophe said they were particularly bewildered by the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers to stem the gush of water pouring into New Orleans through broken levees protecting the city from both the Gulf to the south and Lake Ponchartrain to the north. "I'm extremely upset about it," said Louisiana's Governor, Kathleen Blanco.

The Army Corps, like every other authority charged with preventing the flooding of New Orleans, has had its budget cut repeatedly in recent years. The Federal Emergency Management Administration has had its resources diverted towards the Bush administration's "war on terror", and many of the National Guardsmen who might have been in place to intervene sooner have been diverted to Iraq.

The prospect of an ugly, elemental battle for survival in New Orleans was made worse by the fact that even before Hurricane Katrina it was the poorest urban area in the United States. The ghastly spectacle of overwhelmingly black residents caged in an unsanitary sports stadium and left almost entirely to their own devices could not but evoke memories of the darkest days of segregation and overtly racist Jim Crow laws in the American South. The potential for racial conflict has been quietly side-stepped in much of the US media coverage to date, but it is also impossible to ignore.

Tales of gun stores being looted and armed gangs roaming the streets were reminiscent of the opening salvos of the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Police said their officers had been shot at, and news crews for at least one major national network let it be known that they had hired private security guards to guarantee their safety.

Looters raided shops and public buildings and used either rubbish bins or inflatable mattresses to float their takings down the water-filled streets.

The prospect of a major societal breakdown was not restricted to the disaster area. As the first evacuees were welcomed to their new temporary home, the Astrodome in Houston, officials felt obliged to deny that the dispossessed were being held in prison-like conditions. The Astrodome was "not a jail", the chief executive of Harris County, which encompasses Houston, insisted at a news conference.

Officials from President Bush down to Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, said the impact of Katrina was worse than that of the 11 September attacks on New York, and so required an even more energetic response. "So many of the people who did not evacuate could not evacuate, for whatever reason," said Mr Morial. "They are people who are African-American, mostly but not completely, and people who were of little or limited economic means. They are the folks, we've got to get them out of there."