New Orleans mayor: Katrina may have killed thousands
The federal government dispatched helicopters, warships and elite SEAL water-rescue teams in one of the biggest relief operations in U.S. history, aimed at plucking residents from rooftops in the last of the "golden 72 hours" rescuers say is crucial to saving lives.
As fires burned from broken natural-gas mains, the skies above the city buzzed with National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters frantically dropping baskets to roofs where victims had been stranded since the storm roared in with a 145-mph fury Monday. Atop one apartment building, two children held up a giant sign scrawled with the words: "Help us!"
Police said their first priority remained saving lives, and mostly just stood by and watched the looting. On Tuesday, an officer who tried to intervene was shot in the head and critically wounded.
Hundreds of people wandered up and down shattered Interstate 10 ¡ª the only major freeway leading into New Orleans from the east ¡ª pushing shopping carts, laundry racks, anything they could find to carry their belongings.
On some of the few roads that were still open, people waved at passing cars with empty water jugs, begging for relief. Hundreds of people appeared to have spent the night on a crippled highway.
Starting late Wednesday, authorities planned to move at least 25,000 storm refugees to the Astrodome in a vast, two-day convoy of some 500 buses provided by the federal government. With the air-conditioning knocked out, the Superdome has become stifling, its toilets are broken and there is nowhere for anyone to bathe.
"We have to," Nagin said. "It's not living conditions."
In addition to the Astrodome solution, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was considering putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks, and so-called floating dormitories.
The floodwaters streamed into the city's streets from two levee breaks near Lake Pontchartrain a day after New Orleans thought it had escaped catastrophic damage from Katrina. The floodwaters covered 80 percent of the city, in some areas 20 feet deep, in a reddish-brown soup of sewage, gasoline and garbage.
Around midday, officials with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers said the water levels between the city and Lake Pontchartrain had equalized, and water had stopped spilling into New Orleans, and even appeared to be falling. But the danger was far from over.
The Army Corps of Engineers said it planned to use heavy-duty Chinook helicopters to drop 15,000-pound bags of sand and stone as early as Wednesday night into the 500-foot gap in the failed floodwall.
But the agency said it was having trouble getting the sandbags and dozens of
15-foot highway barriers to the site because the city's waterways were blocked
by loose barges, boats and large debris.