NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) â€” President George W. Bush ordered more troops to help evacuate and secure New Orleans on Saturday as rescuers moved thousands of desperate refugees out of the city and shut down two huge shelters that had become the scene of murder, rape and chaos.
Under fire for his government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, which wrecked one of the world’s most famous cities and may have killed thousands of people, Bush said he will send in 7,200 additional active duty troops in the next three days.
Another 10,000 National Guard troops will also be sent to Louisiana and Mississippi in the coming days, raising the total number to 40,000, the Pentagon said.
“Many of our citizens are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans, and that is unacceptable,” said Bush, who planned to return to the stricken region on Monday, a week after Katrina hit.
After days of broken promises, US troops have finally started moving emergency relief supplies into New Orleans and are now trying to halt widespread looting and horrific violence even as they feed evacuees and move them to shelters in Texas.
Thousands of survivors were ordered out of the two major shelters in New Orleans â€” the Superdome arena and a convention centre â€” where they endured brutal conditions all week.
Within an hour, 1,500 were put on buses and the remaining thousands were lined up to wait for a ride out. Most had no idea where they would be sent to next, when they would return, or even what if anything was left of their homes.
Tens of thousands of evacuees have already been taken to sports stadiums and other huge shelters in Texas and northern Louisiana. Still, senior military officials said there were still up to 80,000 people stranded in New Orleans.
Many at the convention centre described nights of misery at the mercy of rapists and murderers. They complained that security forces sent to guard them were trigger happy and had killed innocent people.
“Last night at 8:00pm they shot a kid of just 16. He was just crossing the street. They ran him over, the New Orleans police did, and then they got out of the car and shot him in the head,” said 48-year-old Wade Batiste.
The young man’s body lay in the street on Saturday morning, covered in a black blanket. Nearby his family sat in shock.
‘This is wrong’
“They have us living here like animals,” said Wvonnette Grace-Jordan, who was at the convention centre with five children. “We have only had two meals, we have no medicine and now there are thousands of people defecating in the streets. This is wrong. This is the United States of America.”
The misery and destruction combined with widespread looting presented jarring images of death and despair in the world’s richest and most powerful country.
There was blistering criticism at home and abroad of the slow, badly organised response to one of America’s worst natural catastrophes.
Most of Katrina’s victims are poor and black, unable to evacuate the area as the storm raced in, and the tragedy has highlighted the vast race divide in the United States.
Bush promised on Saturday to fix the failings of the emergency efforts.
“Where our response is not working we’ll make it right. Where our response is working we will duplicate it,” he said.
Bush signed a $10.5 billion relief package for Gulf Coast areas hit by Katrina, and lawmakers said they planned to allocate more money in the coming weeks.
In the massive evacuation programme, refugees are being pulled out of New Orleans in military and commercial planes, on buses and trains. Three cruise ships were being sent to temporarily house elderly and disabled refugees.
Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said rescue teams were collecting bodies and sending them to morgues, but he refused to discuss a body count.
“We are starting the collection of bodies, treating them with respect, getting them into morgues and tagging them.”
As army troops and National Guard units establish control of New Orleans, they will seek to drive looting gangs off the streets and disarm them. But Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco warned the streets are not yet safe.
“There’s still some danger because power’s not up and the nights are dark,” she said. “We have a lot to go through before we get comfortable.”
Jim Letten, the US Attorney in New Orleans, said law enforcement agencies were beginning to get a grip on the situation after the mayhem of the past five days.
“Now that civil order has been restored… we are going to bring these guys to justice,” he said.
Across the United States, gas prices vaulted to over $3 a gallon after Katrina’s 225 kph winds shut eight oil refineries and crippled several others. Marathon Oil, one of the refiners hurt by the hurricane, said it expected its seven refineries to be back at full capacity by Monday.
US Treasury Secretary John Snow said Katrina may slow US economic growth for a few months, but would not have a lasting impact.
The political ramifications might last longer, with widespread criticism of the government’s relief work and suggestions that Washington would have moved much quicker if it were rich whites in danger.
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” black rapper Kanye West alleged during an NBC benefit concert on Friday night for Hurricane Katrina victims.
The US Army Corps of Engineers said it would take between 36 and 80 days to remove floodwaters that swamped New Orleans.
Work crews gained control over one of the breaches in the levee and expected to have another major gap closed on Saturday, said Brig. Gen. Robert Crear.