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Sep 2, 2005 8:30 am US/Eastern
(1010 WINS) (NEW ORLEANS) An explosion jolted residents awake early Friday, illuminating the pre-dawn sky with red and orange flames over a city where corpses rotted along flooded sidewalks and bands of armed thugs thwarted fitful rescue efforts.
Congress was rushing through a $10.5 billion aid package, the Pentagon promised 1,400 National Guardsmen a day to stop the looting and President Bush planned to visit the region Friday. But city officials were seething with anger about what they called a slow federal response following Hurricane Katrina.
"They don't have a clue what's going on down there," Mayor Ray Nagin told WWL-AM Thursday night.
"They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn - excuse my French everybody in America, but I am pissed."
At 4:35 a.m. Friday, an explosion rocked a chemical storage facility near the Mississippi River east of the French Quarter, said Lt. Michael Francis of the Harbor Police. A series of smaller blasts followed and then acrid, black smoke that could be seen even in the dark. The vibrations were felt all the way downtown.
Francis did not have any other information about the explosions and did not know if there were any casualties. At least two police boats could be seen at the scene and a hazardous material team was on route.
It was the opening strike in yet another day of sadly deteriorating conditions since Katrina slammed ashore Monday morning.
Thursday saw thousands being evacuated by bus to Houston from the hot and stinking Superdome. Fistfights and fires erupted amid a seething sea of tense, suffering people who waited in a lines that stretched a half-mile to board yellow school buses. The looting continued.
Breed reports people are scrambling to get food and water from helicopters.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco called the looters "hoodlums" and issued a warning to lawbreakers: Hundreds of National Guard troops hardened on the battlefield in Iraq have landed in New Orleans.
"They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded," she said. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."
At the Superdome, group of refugees broke through a line of heavily armed National Guardsmen in a scramble to get on to the buses.
Nearby, about 15,000 to 20,000 people who had taken shelter at New Orleans Convention Center grew ever more hostile after waiting for buses for days amid the filth and the dead.
Police Chief Eddie Compass said there was such a crush around a squad of 88 officers that they retreated when they went in to check out reports of assaults.
"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."
By Thursday evening, 11 hours after the military began evacuating the Superdome, the arena held 10,000 more people than it did at dawn. Evacuees from across the city swelled the crowd to about 30,000 because they believed the arena was the best place to get a ride out of town.
Some of those among the mostly poor crowd had been in the dome for four days without air conditioning, working toilets or a place to bathe. One military policeman was shot in the leg as he and a man scuffled for the MP's rifle. The man was arrested.
By late Thursday, the flow of refugees to the Houston Astrodome was temporarily halted with a population of 11,325, less than half the estimated 23,000 people expected.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that Dallas would host 25,000 more refugees at Reunion Arena and 25,000 others would relocate to a San Antonio warehouse at KellyUSA, a city-owned complex that once was home to an Air Force base. Houston estimated as many as 55,000 people who fled the hurricane were staying in area hotels.
While floodwaters in New Orleans appeared to stabilize, efforts continued to plug three breaches that had opened up in the levee system that was designed to protect this below-sea-level city.
Helicopters dropped sandbags into the breach and pilings were being pounded into the mouth of the canal Thursday to close its connection to Lake Pontchartrain.
At least seven bodies were scattered outside the convention center, a makeshift staging area for those rescued from rooftops, attics and highways. The sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement.
A military helicopter tried to land at the convention center several times to drop off food and water. But the rushing crowd forced the choppers to back off. Troopers then tossed the supplies to the crowd from 10 feet off the ground and flew away.
"There's a lot of very sick people - elderly ones, infirm ones - who can't stand this heat, and there's a lot of children who don't have water and basic necessities to survive on," said Daniel Edwards, 47, outside the center. "We need to eat, or drink water at the very least."
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 lay dead in her wheelchair, covered up by a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.
"I don't treat my dog like that," Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. "You can do everything for other countries, but you can't do nothing for your own people."
FEMA director Michael Brown said the agency just learned about the situation at the convention center Thursday and quickly scrambled to provide food, water and medical care and remove the corpses.
The slow response frustrated Nagin: "I have no idea what they're doing but I will tell you this: God is looking down on all this and if they're not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price because every day that we delay, people are dying and they're dying by the hundreds."
In hopes of defusing the situation at the convention center, Nagin gave the evacuees permission to march across a bridge to the city's unflooded west bank for whatever relief they could find.
A day after Nagin took 1,500 police officers off search-and-rescue duty to try to restore order in the streets, there were continued reports of looting, shootings, gunfire and carjackings.
Tourist Debbie Durso of Washington, Mich., said she asked a police officer for assistance and his response was, "'Go to hell - it's every man for himself.'"
FEMA officials said some operations had to be suspended in areas where gunfire has broken out, but they are working overtime to feed people and restore order.
Outside a looted Rite-Aid drugstore, some people were anxious to show they needed what they were taking. A gray-haired man who would not give his name pulled up his T-shirt to show a surgery scar and explained that he needs pads for incontinence.
"I'm a Christian," he said. "I feel bad going in there."
Hospitals struggled to evacuate critically ill patients who were dying for lack of oxygen, insulin or intravenous fluids. But when some hospitals try to airlift patients, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan said, "there are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, `You better come get my family.'"
To make matters worse, the chief of the Louisiana State Police said he heard of numerous instances of New Orleans police officers - many of whom from flooded areas - turning in their badges.
"They indicated that they had lost everything and didn't feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives," Col. Henry Whitehorn said.
Mississippi's confirmed death toll from Katrina rose to 126 on Thursday as more rescue teams spread out into a sea of rubble to search for the living, their efforts complicated at one point by the threat of a thunderstorm.
All along the 90-mile coast, other emergency workers performed the grisly task of retrieving corpses, some of them lying on streets and amid the ruins of obliterated homes that stretch back blocks from the beach.
Gov. Haley Barbour said he knows people are tired, hungry, dirty and scared - particularly in areas hardest hit by Katrina. He said the state faces a long and expensive recovery process.
"I will say, sometimes I'm scared, too," Barbour said during a briefing in Jackson, Miss. "But we are going to hitch up our britches. We're going to get this done."