NEW ORLEANS, United States (AFP) -Looting overshadowed rescue efforts in New Orleans while victims of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi got their first drinking water, in the aftermath of what President George W. Bush called one of the worst natural disasters in US history.
With authorities estimating hundreds of dead from Monday”s storm — and not even bothering to recover many of the bodies from the floods, news that floodwater levels had stabilised offered scant relief as the enormous scale of the crisis became apparent.
Bush said it would take years to recover from the disaster, as he cut short his summer holiday to deal with the crisis and flew over New Orleans and other hurricane-damaged cities in Air Force One on his way back to Washington Wednesday.
US National Guard troops early Thursday girded for a mission to stem rising anarchy in looting-hit New Orleans, as authorities tried to stop the situation spiralling out of control.
"The National Guard is quickly hoping to turn its mission to more law enforcement," Bob Mann, spokesman for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, told reporters in a late night briefing.
Some 4,000 Guard troops were deployed in the New Orleans area, and were to be reinforced in the early hours of Thursday by 150 military police, with 50 more on the way, Mann said.
Civilian police officers were also being called up from parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and as far away as Michigan, he said.
Mann said Blanco spent hours in meetings on Wednesday afternoon and evening ensuring that the Guard could hand over search efforts and spend "the majority of its time and effort in policing New Orleans and restoring law and order."
She had also raised the issue in a telephone conversation with President George W. Bush, Mann said.
Crisis talks on the worsening situation in the swamped city came as police chased armed gangs through the darkened streets of New Orleans.
Shots were fired highlighting mounting danger in the southern city that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina on Monday.
Residents reported hundreds of looters on the streets, carjackings, armed robberies and even shots fired at helicopters evacuating patients from local hospitals.
Media reports said one gang had commandeered a telephone company van to carry out robberies while Fox News television said two men with AK47 semi-automatic rifles had opened fire on a police station.
Blanco earlier said lawlessness had driven her to desperation.
"We beg the people to get out," Blanco told a news conference called to urge remaining people in New Orleans to leave the city.
"What angers me the most is that in these situations, you usually see the best from people. But here we saw also the worse. We”re going to enforce law and order."
One nurse told how helicopters evacuating patients from a local hospital had been fired upon. There were also reports of men armed with automatic rifles opening fire in a police station.
The US military sent ships, helicopters and thousands of National Guard troops to Louisiana and Mississippi where rescue workers were overwhelmed by the task of reaching and evacuating thousands of stranded people without power or drinking water.
Officials also warned of a potential public health disaster caused by outbreaks of mosquito- and water-borne diseases carried by floods contaminated with toxic chemicals, gasoline, human waste and even corpses.
Officials confirmed 110 deaths in Mississippi, including 100 in Harrison County alone. They said several hundred were feared dead.
"The death toll will rise very dramatically," Major General Harold Cross, commander of the Mississippi National Guard, told CNN television.
Bush said tens of thousands of people had been made homeless after flying over the stricken area in Air Force One while returning to Washington to oversee the massive rescue and relief effort.
"We”re dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation”s history," he said. "This recovery will take a long time. This recovery will take years."
A positive note in all the chaos, was the arrival late Wednesday in Mississippi coastal towns and cities of 85 trucks bearing the first deliveries of drinking water and ice for thousands of people made homeless by the storm.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said that 90 percent of buildings in the worst-hit parts of the state were "totally just gone".
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said nearly a million people had been evacuated from the region but "a couple hundred thousand" were still trapped.
Authorities started moving thousands of people who rode out the storm in the city”s Superdome stadium to the Astrodome stadium in Houston, Texas, which has offered to take up to 25,000 refugees from New Orleans.
Convoys of scores of yellow school buses and tour buses took the homeless to Houston while convoys of emergency supplies headed in the opposite direction.
Nagin said it would be three to four months before residents who fled the storm could return.
As gasoline prices jumped across the country, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said the government would tap emergency oil reserves to replenish Gulf Coast refinery operations devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
The US Coast Guard said at least 20 oil rigs and platforms were missing in the Gulf of Mexico and a ruptured gas pipeline was on fire.
The only positive news was that floodwater levels that inundated 80 percent of low-lying New Orleans after levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain gave way, appeared to have stabilised.
"The lake level has equalized with interior water inside the city, which means it won”t flow inside the city (any longer), except for high tide," said Major General Dan Riley of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
"The lake will continue receding during the day, about half an inch an hour. As it recedes, this will help," Riley said.
Using helicopters on Wednesday, the Corps of Engineers began trying to plug major breaches in the levee by dropping concrete blocks and 3,000-pound (1,400-kilogram) sandbags into the gaping holes.
Switzerland”s Swiss Re company, the world”s second largest reinsurance company, estimated that the damage caused by Katrina would cost the insurance industry about 20 billion dollars.