In New Orleans, Frustrations Boiling Over

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Residents of New Orleans struggle to seek shelter, food and water amid chaos. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco says National Guardsmen ordered to restore order amid mass looting "know how to shoot and kill." Meanwhile, search-and-rescue operations looked for more stranded victims.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco says National Guardsmen are prepared to shoot and kill looters in New Orleans as civil order continues to deteriorate. Meanwhile, search-and-rescue operations look for more stranded victims. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Today, the fifth day of rescue and evacuation efforts, some storm victims are wondering if they've been forgotten. The city's two primary public hospitals, Charity and University hospitals, sit in a lagoon of floodwater that has swamped most of their emergency generators. The staffs are desperately trying to save the lives of critical patients in facilities that have little electricity and no plumbing. Chief financial officer Edward Burke stood on the rear ramp of Charity Hospital yesterday and pleaded for more rescue boats and helicopters.

Mr. EDWARD BURKE (Chief Financial Officer, Charity Hospital): Right now, the sanitary conditions in here are deplorable to the degree that there's an infectious disease problem. And they were talking about sick patients and all of the material that goes with dealing with them still in here, and dead bodies on the outside ramps.

BURNETT: It has been a nightmarish week for the hospital staffs. Every night the buildings go dark. The occupants are nearly out of food. With no refrigeration, Burke said they have had to store corpses in a stairwell. Looters have tried to break in repeatedly. The National Guard was using trucks to help evacuate patients, but Burke says the soldiers discontinued the operation after a sniper took a shot at them. Now a handful of volunteer boaters have stepped in to help ferry the patients out of the hospitals. Again, hospital CFO Edward Burke.

Mr. BURKE: Our urgent need is to get our--evacuate our patients. There's been no concerted effort to evacuate us.

BURNETT: There are about 2,000 people in the two hospitals, including patients, staff, family members and various storm refugees who showed up on their doorstep. Yesterday afternoon, two sport boats puttered through the murky water carrying a head-wound victim and four dialysis patients, all dressed in hospital gowns. A doctor suddenly called them back.

Unidentified Doctor: Stop! Come over here! Do not go to Tulane! Do not go to Tulane! Come here!

Unidentified Man #1: What are you doing?

BURNETT: To make matters worse, nearby Tulane University Medical Center, which has the only helipad in the area, had temporarily stopped accepting patients for evacuation. So the boats made a U-turn, and Charity Hospital, already filthy and overcrowded, made room for five more critical cases.

Unidentified Man #2: Four dialysis and one head bleed. The dialysis goes into the waiting room. I gotta get a stretcher.

BURNETT: One doctor said the four have not had kidney dialysis for four days, and he wasn't sure they would survive. The astonishing thing is, these two hospitals are not hard to get to. They are within a half-mile of the National Guard, the state police and the city's Emergency Operations Center.

A similar drama was playing out at the Ernest Morial Convention Center, which is only 12 blocks away from the rescue operations hub. At the Convention Center, more than 2,000 storm evacuees complained of no food, no water, no medical care and no security. At night there is gunfire, and terrified people rush for cover. Several occupants said a 10-year-old girl was raped the other night. They've heard every day that busses and provisions are on the way, but they never seem to arrive. Johnny Jackson, president of radio station WWOZ, sat dejectedly in front of the building with his 81-year-old mother and his brother, who has Down syndrome.

Mr. JOHNNY JACKSON (President, WWOZ): You know, and this is craziness, you know? Not one public official has come here, even though we hear them on the radio talkin' their shit. Not one relief agency have come here, not one person from the Convention Center, not one person from the Red Cross. People's bodies are here. I mean, you've heard the story. This is craziness.

BURNETT: Away from the angry throng beside the building, 62-year-old Adrina Washington(ph) stood under an umbrella in a drizzling rain in a pink blouse with hollow eyes. Behind her were two dead bodies. One lay on the sidewalk wrapped in a white sheet. The other was slumped over in a wheelchair, covered by a plaid blanket.

Ms. ADRINA WASHINGTON: Two dead bodies, two dead old ladies. One look like her feet has been cut or something, because there's a lot of blood on her feet. The other lady's just lying down and the ants and maggots is already getting into her, and I guess by it being so hot. Now they say we have a dead baby and two men, but I haven't seen those.

BURNETT: Federal official said Thursday the mass of people at the Convention Center would get food, water and transportation out of the city, but the authorities said they can only do so much in the face of such an overwhelming catastrophe.

The news from New Orleans was not all depressing. In the Superdome, the sports arena-turned-shelter, hundreds of buses arrived all day to transport more than 20,000 people to the Houston Astrodome.

Unidentified Man #3: I need two people to get on the bus.

Unidentified Woman #1: We have two.

Unidentified Man #3: Who has two people?

Unidentified Man #4: Who has two people?

Unidentified Woman #1: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah, right here.

Unidentified Man #5: Come on, baby.

Unidentified Man #4: No, I need two together.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #4: Here you go.

BURNETT: National Guardsmen guided the exhausted evacuees onto the air-conditioned coaches for the six-hour drive to Houston. Many of the passengers were overjoyed at their turn of fortunes, such as Giselle Pliquette(ph).

Ms. GISELLE PLIQUETTE: I'm going to say thank you, Jesus. You heard me. This is a beautiful day, baby. I may not be going home, but I'm going somewhere where I'm going to be at least halfway comfortable. You know what I'm saying?

BURNETT: Local and state police, elected officials and National Guardsmen have been working around the clock to deal with this disaster. Many of their own homes have been flooded. But there is a growing rage among the flood victims in New Orleans that the aftermath of the hurricane is being terribly mismanaged. Officials in southeastern Louisiana say they need more National Guardsmen to provide security. Looters are reportedly shooting at anyone in uniform. Everyone is asking the same bewildered questions: Where is FEMA? Where is the Red Cross? Who's in charge? John Burnett, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

MONTAGNE: And we have since learned that some deliveries of food and water did arrive at the convention center late yesterday by military helicopter.

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