NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said Wednesday that Hurricane Katrina "most likely" killed "thousands" of people in the city.
"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and others dead in attics, Nagin said. Asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."
The prediction came as Army engineers struggled to plug New Orleans' breached levees with giant sandbags and concrete barriers, while authorities drew up plans to move some 25,000 storm refugees out of the city to Houston in a huge bus convoy and all but abandon flooded-out New Orleans.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the situation was desperate and there was no choice but to clear out.
"The logistical problems are impossible and we have to evacuate people in shelters," the governor said. "It's becoming untenable. There's no power. It's getting more difficult to get food and water supplies in, just basic essentials."
The Pentagon, meanwhile, began mounting one of the largest search-and-rescue operations in U.S. history, sending four Navy ships to the Gulf Coast with drinking water and other emergency supplies, along with the hospital ship USNS Comfort, search helicopters and elite SEAL water-rescue teams. American Red Cross workers from across the country converged on the devastated region in the agency's biggest-ever relief operation.
The official death toll from Hurricane Katrina has reached at least 110 in Mississippi alone. But Louisiana has put aside the counting of the dead to concentrate on rescuing the living, many of whom were still trapped on rooftops and in attics.
A full day after the Big Easy thought it had escaped Katrina's full fury, two levees broke and spilled water into the streets Tuesday, swamping an estimated 80 percent of the bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city, inundating miles and miles of homes and rendering much of New Orleans uninhabitable for weeks or months.
"We are looking at 12 to 16 weeks before people can come in," Nagin said on ABC's "Good Morning America, "and the other issue that's concerning me is we have dead bodies in the water. At some point in time the dead bodies are going to start to create a serious disease issue."
With the streets awash and looters brazenly cleaning out stores, authorities planned to move at least 25,000 of New Orlean's storm refugees — most of them taking shelter in the dank and sweltering Superdome — to the Astrodome in Houston in a vast exodus by bus.
Around midday, officials with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers said the water levels between the city and Lake Pontchartrain had equalized, and water had stopped rising in New Orleans, and even appeared to be falling, at least in some places.
But the danger was far from over.
The Army Corps of Engineers said it planned to use heavy-duty Chinook helicopters to drop 3,000-pound sandbags Wednesday into the 500-foot gap in the failed floodwall. But the agency said it was having trouble getting the sandbags and dozens of 15-foot highway barriers to the site because the city's waterways were blocked by loose barges, boats and large debris.
Officials said they were also looking at a more audacious plan: finding a barge to plug the 500-foot hole.
"The challenge is an engineering nightmare," the governor said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
As New Orleans descended deeper into chaos, hundreds of people wandered aimlessly up and down Interstate 10, pushing shopping carts, laundry racks, anything they could find to carry their belongings. Dozens of fishermen from up to 200 miles away floated in on caravans of boats to pull residents out of flooded neighborhoods.