President Bush called for a “zero tolerance” policy against looters and profiteering today as New Orleans descended into lawlessness.
Three days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the US Gulf Coast, armed gangs are roaming virtually unchecked through the flooded southern city, diverting police from the vital task of rescuing tens of thousands of residents trapped without food, power or fresh water.
Officials were even forced to suspend the evacuation of almost 25,000 flood refugees from the New Orleans Superdome after shots were fired at Chinook army helicopters overseeing the loading of people onto a fleet of prison buses.
In a television interview this morning Mr Bush defended himself from charges that his own response to the crisis was tardy—he only broke off from a holiday at his Texas ranch yesterday—and that the war in Iraq had left America unable to tackle emergencies at home.
The Pentagon said it would send an extra 10,000 National Guardsmen into Mississippi and Louisiana, bringing the force to more than 18,000, and had ordered an amphibious assault ship back from the Gulf to help with the relief operation.
“We’ve got the resources necessary to do two separate things,” Mr Bush told ABC. “I hope people don’t play politics during this time. This is a natural disaster the likes of which this country may not have seen before. What we need to do is to come together as a nation . . . there will be ample time for politics.”
Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, said last night that thousands had probably died in the floods brought by the storm—although that appears to be largely a guess since bodies are still not being routinely collected or counted.
Mr Nagin ordered virtually the entire police force to abandon search-and-rescue efforts and stop thieves who were becoming increasingly hostile. “They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas—hotels, hospitals, and we’re going to stop it right now,” he said.
Tempers also were starting to flare along the rest of the Gulf Coast strip. Police said a man in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, shot and killed his sister in a row over a bag of ice. Dozens of carjackings were reported, including a nursing home bus and a truck carrying medical supplies for a hospital.
Chris Ayres, a Times reporter, travelled from the devastated Mississippi town of Biloxi to Mobile, Alabama, and said: “There is a feeling of total lawlessness which is quite frightening. There is a feeling that there are no property rights, no rights at all. Along the road people have broken into abandoned hotels and are just living there.
“But the scenes at the petrol stations are the most unsettling. People are getting really annoyed and some petrol stations, especially those closest to the coast, have posted armed guards. Things are getting out of hand.”
Authorities are trying to evacuate all civilians from New Orleans, where an estimated 80,000 people ignored an order to leave last week ahead of Katrina’s arrival.
A large proportion of those are being housed at the Superdome sports stadium, where toilets are backed up and the air unbreathable, and are due to be taken to the Houston Astrodome, 350 miles away, in a fleet of almost 500 prison buses.
Before that operation was suspended, the first buses left overnight—although the first bus to arrive in Houston was one that had been hijacked by a group of desperate refugees.
More than 100 people, and probably several hundred, died in neighbouring Mississippi, where the epicentre of the hurricane hit. If Mr Nagin’s estimate proves true, it would make Katrina the worst natural disaster in the United States since at least the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which have been blamed for anywhere from about 500 to 6,000 deaths.
Katrina would also be the nation’s deadliest hurricane since 1900, when a storm in Galveston, Texas, killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people. But security problems were clearly preventing police, fire officers and other rescue workers from getting to people in need as the Deep South came to resemble the Wild West.
Just outside New Orleans, gunmen held up a supply truck carrying food, water, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, prompting officials to ask police and the US Coast Guard to help evacuate a working 203-bed hospital.
Some of the most graphic descriptions of the chaos have come from a blog run by employees of Directnic, a domain name registrar, who have stayed in the city to keep the company’s servers going. One, who described himself as a security expert, wrote: “It is a zoo out there though, make no mistake. It’s the wild kingdom. It’s Lord of the Flies.
“That doesn’t mean there’s murder on every street corner. But what it does mean is that the rule of law has collapsed, that there is no order, and that property rights cannot and are not being enforced. Anyone who is on the streets is in immediate danger of being robbed and killed. It’s that bad.”
The same blog, at www.livejournal.com/users/interdictor, reported that dozens of New Orleans police officers had simply abandoned their posts.
Asked whether he understood the looters’ motivation, Mr Bush replied: “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.”
Mr Bush is to visit New Orleans and other affected areas on Friday and had asked his father, the first President Bush, and Bill Clinton, his predecessor, to head fundraising efforts. “I want people to know there’s a lot of help coming,” he said.
The President has been sharply criticised in the past 24 hours for his response to the crisis so far. A New York Times editorial this morning said that Mr Bush’s Rose Garden address last night was “one of the worst speeches of his life”.
The newspaper said the President had simply read out a “long laundry list” of the items sent to the Gulf Coast. “He advised the public than anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end,” it added.
Other critics drew a direct link between the stumbling response to the New Orleans disaster and the cost of the war in Iraq, including Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan.
“There were not enough helicopters to repair the breached levees and rescue people trapped by rising water. Nor are there enough Louisiana National Guards available to help with rescue efforts and to patrol against looting,” Mr Roberts wrote in the Counterpunch newsletter.
“The situation is the same in Mississippi. The National Guard and helicopters are off on a fools’ mission in Iraq.”
Sidney Blumenthal, a former aide to President Clinton, wrote in the online magazine Salon.com that the Bush Administration had cut federal funding for New Orleans flood controls by 44 per cent since 2001—despite a Federal Emergency Management Agency report that year that identified New Orleans flooding as one of three major threats to the United States, alongside a terror attack on New York City and an earthquake in San Francisco.