NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Gunshots and mayhem hampered the evacuation of flooded New Orleans on Thursday and more troops were ordered in to assist and control crowds of desperate survivors trying to escape Hurricane Katrina's destruction.
Shell-shocked officials tried to clamp down on looting in the historic jazz city reduced to a swampy ruin by Monday's storm. Bodies floated in the streets, attackers armed with axes and steel pipes stripped hospitals of medicine and authorities said they could still only guess at how many people had died.
"We don't have numbers. It could be in the hundreds, or the thousands," U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said of the statewide death toll. "I think it's going to be shocking."
Federal disaster declarations covered 90,000 square miles (234,000 square kilometers) along the U.S. Gulf Coast, an area roughly the size of Great Britain. As many as 400,000 people had been forced to leave their homes.
Violence broke out in pockets of New Orleans among the wandering crowds grown hungry, thirsty and desperate to escape the flooded city and 90-degree (32 C) temperatures.
"We want help," people changed outside the city's convention center."
Boat rescues were delayed because of the danger and police rescuers shifted their focus to fighting looting and other crime that gripped the city.
A National Guard official said as many as 60,000 people had gathered at the increasingly squalid Superdome stadium for evacuation.
But the evacuation was suspended after reports that someone fired at a military helicopter sent to ferry out survivors. A National Guard soldier was shot and wounded in the arena on Wednesday.
TROOPS ON THE WAY
Nearly 5,000 National Guard troops were mobilized in Louisiana. The military said the number would rise to 21,000 by Friday and 30,000 in the next few days, mostly in Louisiana and Mississippi but also in storm-stricken parts of Alabama and Florida.
Convoys of police and state trooper cars raced down Interstate 10 toward New Orleans with lights flashing, and state police from around the nation were on the way.
"We will do what it takes to bring law and order to our area," an angry Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco told reporters. "I'm just furious. It's intolerable,"
Thousands waited hours or waded through floodwaters to catch rides out of New Orleans. Buses shipped survivors from the Superdome 350 miles (560 km) west to another stadium, the Astrodome in Houston.
The first refugees began arriving early on Thursday at the Houston stadium, where Red Cross workers set out thousands of cots and "comfort kits" that included toiletries and a meal.
But the operation was put on hold when shots were fired at the helicopter, said a local official in Texas involved in the evacuation. Trash fires near the Superdome and other logistic problems also delayed the evacuation.
FIRES AND GUNSHOTS
Elsewhere in New Orleans, gunshots repeatedly rang out and fires flared as looters broke into stores, houses, hospitals and office buildings -- some in search of food, others looking for anything of value.
Two hospitals were under siege by robbers who used axes, guns and metal pipes to steal pain killers and medicine, according to a pilot flying relief operations into New Orleans.
Power and water were off and supplies were exhausted. Critically ill patients were dying one by one without oxygen, insulin and intravenous fluids, the pilot said.
Looting and tension eased in Biloxi, Mississippi, as troops arrived and the Salvation Army began serving 1,200 meals a day at a canteen set up beside the charity's demolished building.
Some of those left hungry and homeless after Katrina shattered the Mississippi coast with a 30-foot (9-metre) wall of water volunteered to help serve, and food lines were orderly.
"The mob could begin to rule in a few days if these people do not get more food and water," said August Pillsbury, who was in charge of the canteen. "I think it could get ugly."
Search crews probed the rubble of collapsed buildings with tiny heat-sensing robots to find the living and cadaver dogs to find the dead. They were still pulling out survivors, and leaving behind many of the corpses trapped under debris.
U.S. President George W. Bush condemned the looting and warned against charging artificially high prices for gasoline.
"I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this, whether it be looting, or price-gouging at the gasoline pump or taking advantage of charitable giving, or insurance fraud," Bush said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."
The president said on Wednesday it could take years to recover and the New Orleans mayor estimated it would be three to four months before residents could return. A million people fled the New Orleans area before Katrina arrived, but tens of thousands of others had lacked the means or ability to get out.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said floodwaters started to drop in New Orleans, which is mostly below sea level and was deluged by water from Lake Pontchartrain after levees broke.
"Water is now flowing slowly out of New Orleans because water is seeking its own level -- that of Lake Pontchartrain," the Corps said in a news release.
That would still leave most of the city under about 8 feet (2.4 metres) of water and officials estimated it could take a month to get the water out.
NO WAY OUT
Some in Mississippi and Louisiana were frustrated with relief efforts.
"Many people didn't have the financial means to get out," said Alan LeBreton, 41, an apartment superintendent who lived on Biloxi, Mississippi's seaside road, now in ruins. "That's a crime and people are angry about it."
The Biloxi Sun Herald newspaper said in an editorial emergency supplies "simply are not getting here fast enough" and asked "why hasn't every able-bodied member of the armed forces in South Mississippi been pressed into service?"
Nationally, retail gasoline prices soared to new records amid rising concern about supplies and no clear picture of when production would return to normal. They vaulted to well over $3 a gallon in most parts of the country and nearly $4 in some areas.
The hurricane cut a swath through a region responsible for about a quarter of the nation's oil and gas output. Several refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast remained shut and the Bush administration began releasing oil from the nation's strategic reserves to offset the losses.
(Additional reporting by Mark Babineck and Erwin Seba in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Paul Simao in Mobile, Alabama, Peter Cooney in Houston, Marc Serota in Pensacola, Florida and Steve Holland in Washington)
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