New Orleans on Thursday pulled back from an almost complete collapse of public order, a near anarchy that had supplanted receding floodwaters as the gravest threat to the city's still tenuous recovery.
Evidence that authorities were beginning to get a grip on gargantuan problems varied from the successful and orderly evacuation of Baptist Mercy Hospital to a sharp reduction in the menacing bands of idle refugees, many of them intent on looting that had haunted Uptown neighborhoods in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
With thousands of National Guard troops being mustered to join the Louisiana guardsmen already deployed to the hurricane-stricken city, one of the early signs of the beefed-up military presence was a Blackhawk helicopter touching down near the Riverwalk to deliver water to some 1,000 refugees still sheltered in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
The mounting relief effort did not allay concerns from local officials that it remained too little and mighty late. And Thursday offered continuing evidence that the city's flirtation with sheer chaos was not yet over: a medivac helicopter scared off by gunfire as it attempted to airlift patients from a downtown hospital; the Oakwood Mall reduced to charred rubble after looters broke in and set fires throughout the sprawling complex; corpses floating in flooded streets; scores of police officers simply abandoning their posts to flee a city gone at least temporarily mad.
State Police Cmdr. Henry Whitehorn said some troopers had resigned rather than accept an assignment to go into New Orleans.
He was uncertain how many, "but I have heard that and I know that's a fact," Whitehorn said, noting that the officers also were coping with the impact of the storm. "They lost everything and don't feel it's worth going back and taking fire from looters."
And everywhere: the homeless, some wandering aimlessly, others massed at bridges and ferry landings waiting for boats and buses no longer in service, many of them drunk on looted liquor in a city without drinking water.
New Orleans: A distraught Angela Perkins screams, "Help us, please!" outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Thursday. A cloud of desperation settled over the hundreds of hungry, homeless people at the Convention Center, creating an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness. (Staff photo by Brett Duke)
Some of the violence and lawlessness appeared to be born as much of desperation as of the more jubilant greed that marked looting shortly after the storm had passed. When the first dozen buses finally arrived Thursday at the Superdome to start transporting about 23,000 refugees to Houston, shoving and fights broke out and trash cans were set ablaze as people jockeyed to get out of the fetid, stinking stadium in which they had been captive since entering the city's shelter of last resort four days earlier.
The violence was not limited to New Orleans.
"I'm supposed to be cleaning up after a storm and I have to have sheriff's deputies walking around on the roof with AK-47s and machine guns," said Jefferson Parish Emergency Operations Director Walter Maestri. Basic cleanup operations, such as clearing downed trees, were on hold, and relief agencies, including FEMA and some private groups, had either pulled out or threatened to do so because of the dangers to their workers, Maestri said.
Ignoring pundits and politicians who question the wisdom of rebuilding a city below sea level surrounded by water, President Bush has vowed a massive relief effort after a storm that inflicted a record $20 billion-plus in damages across the Gulf south. Bush, who dipped below the clouds for a look at New Orleans on Wednesday en route to Washington, is scheduled to be on the ground in the area today.
But comments from officialdom and commoners alike, seethed with the sense that New Orleans had yet to be accorded a response adequate to the crisis at hand.
Terry Ebbert, head of the city's emergency operations, contrasted what he deemed a lackluster response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the massive outpouring of humanitarian and military aid after this past winter's tsunami in southeast Asia.
Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard called the lack of federal response "a disgrace."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was equally blunt. Federal and state officials need to stop having "goddamn press conferences" and get the relief effort rolling, he said in a late-afternoon radio interview, an angry flare-up out of character for the popular, generally easy-going former cable TV executive.
Appearing in a New York studio on NBC's "Today" show, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, now national president of the Urban League, called for "an effort of 9-11 proportions."
"A great American city is fighting for its life," he said. "We must rebuild New Orleans, the city that gave us jazz and music and multiculturalism."
That effort was being waged against long odds Thursday. National Guard spokesman Jack Harrison, in Arlington, Va., said the number of active-duty guard troops in Louisiana would rise to 20,000 overnight, about a quarter of them Louisiana guardsmen, but Gov. Kathleen Blanco estimated it would take at least 40,000 troops to quell the violence.
As troop transport vehicles rumbled through downtown streets, some soldiers appeared visibly unnerved by the chaos they witnessed around them. Scores of New Orleans police had simply gone AWOL and fled, according to a ranking NOPD officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Though flood waters continued to recede, the functional remains of New Orleans had been largely reduced to the narrow strip of neighborhoods up against the Mississippi River levee from the Uptown area to the Industrial Canal, "high ground" in a low-lying city.
"We have three main concerns: Orleans Parish Prison, the Superdome and the Convention Center," said Police Capt. Kevin Anderson, commander of the Eighth District, which includes the French Quarter, the city's oldest neighborhood and most valued tourism draw.
To maintain those assets and whatever else can be restored to order, police command operations had been concentrated at the sprawling Harrah's Casino port-cochere and in the Royal Orleans Hotel. On Thursday, the block between the tony hotel and the alabaster Beaux Arts courthouse across from it was under guard by rooftop sharpshooters and a phalanx of officers brandishing pump- action shotguns, their grim presence offset by smoky barbecue grills and socializing among officers taking a break in the street below.
The focused police work had not been enough to shield all French Quarter shops from the looters who ranged more widely and aggressively in other parts of town. Early Thursday police were briefly caught up in a gun battle in front of the Convention Center and a male civilian was left dead in a puddle of blood.
Across the line in Jefferson Parish, deputies and relief workers were drawn into four shootouts with lawless elements, according to Sheriff Harry Lee. No one was killed, Lee said. Earlier in the week, a New Orleans police officer was shot to death by a looter.
National Guard casualties were limited to a soldier shot in the leg, authorities reported.
As a greater presence of Chinook and Huey military helicopters became apparent in the skies over New Orleans, the near-term tactical goal was a simple one: to rescue survivors and complete an evacuation that, while massive in the days just before the hurricane struck, still left behind somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 of the city's 480,000 residents, many of them infirm, elderly and low- income people without the means to escape.
By day's end, the massive bus-lift to Houston had reduced the Superdome's population to a few thousand refugees, authorities said. But many now homeless people continue to wait on bridges and highway ramps. And while officials remained adamant about the need to get out of a flooded city without power, water, or much prospect of these services being restored for months to come, efforts to comply were frequently mired in miscommunication.
Beside himself after failing to get through to city and state officials, the chief of trauma surgery at Charity Hospital called a news conference on Thursday to beg for help. Charity was nearly out of food and power for its generators and had been forced to move patients to higher floors to escape looters prowling the hospital, Dr. Norman McSwain said.
Texas officials said they were concerned by unconfirmed reports that a group of prisoners under guard had somehow been mixed in with refugees in the bus convoy to Houston's Astrodome.
A cluster of refugees attempted to leave the city by way of the Crescent City Connection, only to be blocked on grounds that the crossing was unsafe for pedestrians. At the suggestion of officials, they retreated to the Superdome, where they learned that the bus convoy to Texas was closed to new arrivals.
Continuing evacuation of the refugee population and the less visible presence of looters had begun to make media crews the last civilian presence on downtown streets.
"It's like Iraq," one veteran war correspondent remarked. "But the difference is that we don't have the army to embed with."
Staff reporters Matt Brown, David Meeks, Mike Perlstein, Gordon Russell and Jim Varney contributed to this report.