NEW ORLEANS — The rushed mobilization of federal troops to the storm-desolated Gulf Coast was outpaced Thursday by New Orleans' rapid descent into chaos. Sniper fire threatened hospital evacuations and a mass bus caravan to Texas, corpses were found outside the city's decaying convention center and weakened refugees collapsed amid enraged crowds on city streets.
At nightfall, heavily armed police and National Guard troops took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance.
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin implored federal officials for immediate aid. "This is a desperate SOS," Nagin said.
About 5,000 people filled the city's convention center and the trash-strewn streets outside on a city plaza where tourists once strolled. Outside the dank, cavernous hall, where temperatures soared and lights winked out, seven corpses lay sprawled, covered by blankets. Other deaths were reported nearby, and there was an increasing number of accounts of rapes and beatings, city officials said.
The Mississippi River city's swift downward spiral overwhelmed beleaguered New Orleans emergency officials and posed a stark crisis for the Bush administration and federal troops converging on the flooded Gulf Coast region.
"I know this is an agonizing time," President Bush said of despairing flood victims in the Gulf Coast region, which he planned to visit today for the first time. "I ask their continued patience as recovery operations unfold."
Congress rushed a $10.5-billion down payment in relief aid for Hurricane Katrina's millions of victims Thursday as thousands of National Guard troops converged on bases and staging areas across the flood zone.
As the situation deteriorated, dismayed New Orleans officials and strapped authorities elsewhere in the Gulf Coast begged for immediate aid. Some grumbled openly about the relief effort, saying the Bush administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had endangered lives by moving too slowly.
"This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace," said Terry Ebbert, head of emergency operations for New Orleans. He said it had taken too long to evacuate the Superdome.
Army engineers have also been criticized for failing to act quickly to plug gaping breaches in the city's levees, which were still leaching tons of water Thursday.
Fresh National Guard troops arrived three days after the hurricane hit to find New Orleans police overwhelmed and in some instances outgunned by snipers who holed up in abandoned apartment buildings and storefronts.
An attempt by New Orleans police to take control of the convention center collapsed in a shoving match as an angry mob ran off a team of officers who tried to force their way inside.
"We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten," said Police Supt. Eddie Compass, who confirmed the attempt to quell the crowd. "Tourists are walking in that direction, and they are getting preyed upon."
Louisiana National Guard soldiers chased refugees and stragglers away from the intersection of Loyola Avenue and Girod Street in the heart of New Orleans. An unseen sniper holed up in a nearby building fired sporadically at soldiers and pedestrians.
"We think he's in one of those high-rises," Sgt. Matthew Gautreau said, nodding over his shoulder. "He's been shooting all morning."
In the flood-swept city center, another distant gunman hidden in a high-rise terrorized doctors and patients at Charity Hospital as staff worked feverishly to evacuate critically ill patients.
"Sniper! Sniper! Sniper!" nurses screamed as shots drove them back into Charity's emergency room.
Respiratory therapist Blake Bergeron was among staffers and National Guard troops who were forced to retreat when their truck was fired at after 11 a.m. He heard two or three shots and heard bullets ping into the floodwaters. "The soldiers shouted for us to get down," he said.
Later, hoping the coast was clear, medical teams again tried to carry patients outside. But more bursts sent doctors scurrying in retreat. Inside, nurses used bellows-like oxygen bags instead of mechanical ventilators to provide oxygen to patients too ill to breathe on their own. At nightfall, several seriously ill patients were evacuated by boat. But the boats soon returned, forced to retreat because promised rescue vehicles were not there to meet them.
By then, several of the sickest patients had died, said Dr. Ruth Bergeron. "They just brought a dead body down from the third floor," she said grimly.
The dead also lay under a punishing sun outside the convention center. At least seven bodies were scattered outside the hall, a squatter's hell for those downtown after their recent rescue from sodden attics and isolated rooftops. The dead lay among the refugees, who were hungry and thirsty and provoked by rumors of bus caravans that never arrived.