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Chaos Erupts in New Orleans As 20,000 Await Evacuation<P>By Ralph Blumenthal

Chaos Erupts in New Orleans

As 20,000 Await Evacuation

By Ralph Blumenthal
and Maria Newman


This storm-ravaged city was increasingly engulfed in chaos Thursday as looters marauded, bodies floated untouched in stagnant floodwaters, and food and water supplies dwindled for thousands of trapped, desperate residents who had not yet managed to find a way out to Texas, where shelter, supplies and order greeted a trickle of evacuees.

They left this devastated city of sorrow and anger by bus, by purloined vehicles and any other way they could find, and overwhelmed rescue officials said that they were working to find more shelters to receive them, in any state or any city that would provide them.

The White House announced more steps to assist the increasingly taxed local authorities, and said President Bush would tour the region on Friday. An aide acknowledged that the administration was aware of the rising level of rage among people feeling abandoned amid the carnage and destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Monday.

“I can understand how frustrated people are,” the presidential spokesman, Scott McClellan, said in Washington. “It is a major catastrophe.”

The secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, said the scope of the disaster was on a scale that Americans were accustomed to seeing only beyond their shores. “Ultimately, we’re talking about the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, and that will be a challenge in this country on par with some of the tragedies that we’ve seen overseas,” he said, adding that displaced people in hotels, motels, shelters or with relatives would receive rental assistance and other aid to help them through the next weeks and months.

With New Orleans 80 percent under water, officials are just beginning the process of moving 20,000 or so refugees overflowing from the Superdome to Houston, even as other residents in the city were still being rescued from their water-logged neighborhoods. With few other places to turn, thousands of people have been gathering at the New Orleans Convention Center, where no authority appeared to be in charge to provide food, water, medical care or even law enforcement.

National Guard troops were moving into the city to try to impose order amid increasing mayhem, which was hampering the rescue and recovery process. There were numerous reports — and rumors — of fights and disorder in the streets, worsened by unreliable communications. But there was no doubt that people were becoming more desperate as food and clean water ran out.

Given the enormity of the disaster, chaos has ruled much of the rescue effort from the beginning, a phenomenon acknowledged by Mike Brown, the operations chief for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who likened the process to “the fog of war.”

As survivors struggled with a disaster that left estimated damage of up to $25 billion, a gargantuan relief effort began. Chertoff, whose agency, the Department of Homeland Security, is heading the federal relief effort, said Thursday morning that the recovery would take months, if not longer. “We know that we have a long and challenging road ahead of us,” he said.