Shots Fired, Halting Superdome Evacuation

The evacuation of the Superdome is temporarily suspended when shots are fired at a military helicopter. Meanwhile, the first buses carrying hurricane refugees from New Orleans have arrived at the Houston Astrodome.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Conditions in New Orleans continue to deteriorate three days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The city's mayor is now predicting the death toll there will be in the hundreds and possibly the thousands. Army engineers are still working to repair damaged levees, and much of the city is still flooded. Today the evacuation of the Superdome was temporarily disrupted because of shots fired at a military helicopter. NPR's Phillip Davis is following the story from Lafayette, Louisiana, and he joins me now.

Good morning, Phillip.

PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And what more can you tell us about the reports of shootings at the Superdome?

DAVIS: Yeah. Early this morning, shots were heard apparently being fired at a Chinook helicopter that was flying over the Superdome. Now the gunman or gunmen have not been found, and the evacuation of thousands of refugees from the Superdome to Houston, however, was temporarily disrupted by the situation as National Guard and police tried to figure out what was going on. The National Guard is rushing an extra 100 military police to the area to add a measure of security as this evacuation continues. It's just another piece of really bad news for some of the 20,000 refugees at the Superdome, who yesterday got some good news that, you know, the state of Texas was willing to host them at the Astrodome in Houston, in much better, air-conditioned and sanitary conditions. Already about 500 buses have assembled in New Orleans to take these people out, but this gunshot situation just made that process a lot more complicated.

And the situation is getting really chaotic down at the Superdome. Tensions are--they're beyond high. There's lots of people trying to get on the buses who weren't inside the Superdome and therefore, apparently, are not eligible to go to Houston. There's fights breaking out. There's trash fires. It's just a mess down there.

MONTAGNE: And generally speaking, what is the situation this morning in New Orleans?

DAVIS: Well, as you can tell, it's not very good, but at least one thing seems to have stabilized, and that's that the leaks in the levees aren't as bad as they were over the last few days, mainly because the water level in the city is now pretty much equal to the water level in Lake Pontchartrain. That's going to give the Army Corps of Engineers and municipal officials a bit of breathing room to close off these breaks in the levees. They're going to be dropping concrete highway barriers and 12,000-pound sandbags into the breaches to see if it'll close them up. And, of course, they're trying to deal with just the terrible living conditions and the insecurity in the city.

MONTAGNE: The mayor of New Orleans, speaking about tensions over there at the Superdome--I mean, we've been seeing all these photographs and pictures of looters, so the mayor has reassigned 1,500 police to try to restore some semblance of law and order. Tell us about that.

DAVIS: That's right. Mayor Ray Nagin ordered virtually every one of his police officers to put the search-and-rescue operations on hold for right now and concentrate on going back to the street, street patrol, because the looting has just gotten out of control. It may have started with food and water and diapers, and if you looked in some of the stores, that's what was missing. But people are now stealing they can carry: electronics, even guns, fuel especially. Nagin says anybody caught looting will be incarcerated. Of course, where they're going to be incarcerated isn't clear, because the city prison is shut down. And the governor is mobilizing 5,000 more state Guardsmen to come in and try to help stop this crime wave.

MONTAGNE: And city officials have ordered everyone still in the city to evacuate. Of course, some of them haven't even been taken off their roofs. But where are they going to go, and how's that going?

DAVIS: Nobody knows where they're going to go. As I said, some of the people who were trying to get into the buses in Houston are not being allowed, but the mayor says everyone has to get out because it's going to be three to four months before power is completely restored. And with all the standing water, it's just not healthy to be in the city. There are bodies floating in there. There's fecal matter floating in the water, and there's a serious disease situation developing. And so even though nobody knows where these people are going to go, the mayor says they have to leave now.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR's Phillip Davis in Lafayette, Louisiana.

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