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Flooding in New Orleans May Be Deadlist U.S. Disaster Ever<P>By Robert D. Mcfadden 
and Joseph B. Treaster THE NEW YORK TIMES <P>NEW ORLEANS <P>

Flooding in New Orleans May
Be Deadlist U.S. Disaster Ever

By Robert D. Mcfadden 
and Joseph B. Treaster


Chaos gripped New Orleans on Wednesday as looters ran wild, food and water supplies dwindled, bodies floated in the floodwaters, the Superdome was to be evacuated and officials said there was no choice but to abandon the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, perhaps for months. President Bush pledged vast assistance, but acknowledged: “This recovery will take years.”

For the first time, a New Orleans official suggested the scope of the death toll. Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the hurricane may have killed thousands in his city alone, an estimate that, if correct, would make it the nation’s deadliest natural disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which killed up to 6,000.

“We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water,” and others hidden from view in attics and other places, the mayor told reporters. Asked how many, he said: “Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands.”

As survivors struggled with a disaster that left damage of up to $25 billion, a gargantuan relief effort got under way. Ships, planes, helicopters and convoys of supplies and rescue teams converged on the Gulf Coast, and Pentagon officials said that 30,000 National Guard and active-duty troops would be deployed by this weekend in the largest domestic relief effort by the military in the nation’s history.

With police officers and National Guard troops giving priority to saving lives, looters brazenly ripped open gates and ransacked stores for food, clothing, television sets, computers, jewelry and guns, often in full view of helpless law-enforcement officials. Dozens of carjackings, apparently by survivors desperate to escape, were reported, as were a number of shootings.

Wednesday night Nagin ordered 1,500 police to turn from search and rescue to stopping the looting. “They are starting to get closer to the heavily populated areas — hotels, hospitals, and we’re going to stop it right now,” he said in a statement issued to the Associated Press.

New Orleans, a city of 500,000, mostly below sea level and reliant upon levees along the Mississippi River running through it and Lake Pontchartrain to the north, was a nightmarish waterworld that Nagin said would have to be abandoned while the levees are repaired and the city drained. He called for a “total evacuation,” adding: “We have to. The city will not be functional for two or three months.”