New Orleans Evacuates As Mayor Issues 'Desperate SOS'

'The city will not be functional for two or three months,' Mayor C. Ray Nagin said.

As officials began a full evacuation of New Orleans that could leave the city a ghost town for months, chaos continued on the streets. Armed gangs of looters terrorized the city, crashing into a pharmacy using a forklift, grabbing food, clothes, guns and electronic equipment from ruined shops, committing carjackings and stealing medical supplies from hospitals.

The government deployed thousands of troops on Wednesday to stem the tide of lawlessness, and 1,500 New Orleans police officers — nearly the entire force — assigned to search-and-rescue duties were redeployed Wednesday to help bring order to the city's streets, where gunfire could be heard throughout the day.

In an uptown New Orleans neighborhood, managers of a nursing home had gathered enough food for 10 days, according to a report by The Associated Press, but then looters arrived. "Now we'll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot," Executive Director Peggy Hoffman said Wednesday as the home's residents were being evacuated.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered the forced evacuation as the flood waters that have swamped more than 90 percent of the city's homes slowly began to level off — and in some cases, recede, unveiling total devastation in their wake. "The city will not be functional for two or three months," Nagin said, adding that he feared the death toll may be in the hundreds, if not thousands (see "Katrina Devastates New Orleans; Mississippi Death Toll Rises To Over 110").

At the flooded Charity Hospital, where armed looters stole drugs from doctors earlier in the day, efforts to evacuate its patients were put to a halt on Thursday (September 1) after it came under sniper fire. One of its doctors was returning to the facility after dropping off patients at Tulane Medical Center when someone began shooting at their Humvee, CNN reported.

Thieves have been clearing the shelves of guns and ammunition at area Wal-Marts, and one man was forced to give up his car to a machete-wielding assailant. The Federal Emergency Management Agency suspended its ground-rescue operations early Thursday morning due to armed gang violence, but its choppers remained in service throughout the day.

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Meanwhile, rescuers continue their search for survivors. R&B legend Fats Domino, 77, had been missing since Monday but was rescued by helicopter on Thursdsay and is reportedly in good condition.

Mayor Nagin issued a "desperate SOS" for the thousands still stranded in and around New Orleans, especially those suffering in the city's deteriorating convention center, which he deemed "unsanitary and unsafe." Thousands were stranded without food and clean drinking water, but long-awaited food drops finally began Thursday afternoon, CNN reported, delivering ready-to-eat meals and bottled water.

Roughly 20,000 of the 25,000-plus evacuees at the Louisiana Superdome are due to be transported to the better-equipped Houston Astrodome some 350 miles away in the coming days. The Red Cross has ordered 45,000 cots and blankets.

Congress announced Thursday it will return early from its monthlong break to push through a $10.5 billion aid package for disaster victims. Ten billion will be allocated to FEMA, with the remainder going to the Pentagon for its relief efforts.

On Thursday afternoon, President Bush pleaded with Americans to conserve gasoline, with worries running high that the nation's supply may run out in the coming days. Supplies have been severely limited since oil refineries were damaged and production disrupted by the storm. The president has already tapped into U.S. oil reserves to counter supplies lost by Katrina.

Bush also announced that he has recruited the assistance of former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to spearhead a private fund raising drive for disaster victims. So far, aid agencies have tallied more than $90 million in private donations, with more expected in the coming weeks. The Red Cross alone has reportedly received more than $71 million in gifts and pledges as of Thursday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced late Thursday that the U.S. would accept foreign aid after all, despite Bush having told ABC-TV "I'm not expecting much from foreign nations because we hadn't asked for it," according to the AP. Russia, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, Greece, Mexico, South Korea and China have offered aid to victims. Venezuela has pledged $1 million toward disaster relief, as well as fuel.

Justice Department officials said Wednesday that they are working with local authorities to investigate cases of price-gouging on gasoline and water in New Orleans and other affected areas, where some stations were posting prices approaching $6 a gallon for gas.

With no water (to drink, operate toilets or fight fires), no power and little cell phone service, New Orleans officials rushed to get people out of town, fearing that the heat and unsanitary conditions could raise the death toll further. By Wednesday's end, authorities had gathered a fleet of about 550 government boats to ferry stranded residents to high ground, according to a Chicago Tribune report.

The 25,000 evacuees left homeless by the storm began a long journey on more than 450 buses late Wednesday from the Superdome in New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston, where refugees will have running water, showers and air conditioning for the first time in days. Those who couldn't get onto the buses began walking the 350 mile route in the hope that there will be room for them in Houston. Others slept on shattered Interstate 10 as they waited for buses to shuttle them to Texas or northern Louisiana.

In a sign of the continuing chaos of the storm's aftermath, the first bus to arrive at the Astrodome late Wednesday was a "renegade" shuttle that was not part of the official convoy and which was initially turned away. For a time Thursday morning, convoys were stopped as shots were fired at an Army helicopter being used to aid evacuation at the Superdome, according to a CNN report.

Army Corps of Engineers officials said it would be weeks or months before the city is pumped dry, and it could take years to rebuild the thousands of homes and businesses, as well as streets, highways and other critical infrastructure. The paradox, experts told The New York Times, was that the destruction of the below-sea-level city could provide an opportunity to rebuild it and make it safer from the water that has always threatened it, with more secure buildings and levees capable of withstanding the strongest storms.

Four Navy ships were dispatched to the region on Wednesday with drinking water and emergency medical supplies. The Defense Department, which originally ordered 18,000 National Guard troops to help with law enforcement, cleanup and communications, announced Thursday that it will put 30,000 troops on duty as the need for more security enforcement in the Gulf region grows. About 24,000 troops will be deployed to Louisiana and Mississippi within the next three days, according to the AP.

The Defense Department ordered 11,000 National Guard troops to help with law enforcement, cleanup and communications, adding to the 18,000 troops already on the ground in the area.

And, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Pentagon authorized Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the Northern Command, to plan for possibly deploying active-duty troops — which can only be ordered by the president under the rarely used Insurrection Act. The 30,000 National Guard troops already deployed represent the largest domestic relief effort by the military in the country's history, according to The New York Times.

Be sure to watch "MTV News Special: After the Storm," which premieres Saturday, September 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET.

To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.