By ALLEN G. BREED, Associated Press Writer 30 minutes ago
Four days after Hurricane Katrina struck, the National Guard arrived in force Friday with food, water and weapons, churning through the floodwaters in a vast truck convoy with orders to retake the streets and bring relief to the suffering.
"The cavalry is and will continue to arrive," said Lt. Gen. Steven Blum of the National Guard.
At the New Orleans Convention Center, some of the thousands of storm victims awaiting their deliverance applauded, threw their hands heavenward and screamed, "Thank you, Jesus!" as the camouflage-green trucks and hundreds of soldiers arrived in this increasingly desperate and lawless city.
"Lord, I thank you for getting us out of here," said Leschia Radford.
But there was also anger and profane catcalls.
"Hell no, I'm not glad to see them. They should have been here days ago. I ain't glad to see 'em. I'll be glad when 100 buses show up," said 46-year-old Michael Levy, whose words were echoed by those around him yelling, "Hell, yeah! Hell yeah!"
"We've been sleeping on the ... ground like rats," Levy said. "I say burn this whole ... city down."
The soldiers' arrival-in-force came amid blistering criticism from the mayor and others who said the federal government had bungled the relief effort and let people die in the streets for lack of food, water or medicine.
"The people of our city are holding on by a thread," Mayor Ray Nagin warned in a statement to CNN. "Time has run out. Can we survive another night? And who can we depend on? Only God knows."
The military said its first priority was delivering food and water, after which it would begin evacuating people — something that could take days.
"As fast as we can, we'll move them out," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore. "Worse things have happened to America," he added. "We're going to overcome this, too. It's not our fault. The storm came and flooded the city."
In Washington, President Bush admitted "the results are not acceptable" and pledged to bolster the relief efforts. He visited the stricken Gulf Coast later in the day, and pledged in Mobile, Ala.: "What is not working right, we're going to make it right."
With a cigar-chomping general in the convoy's lead vehicle, the trucks rolled through muddy water up to their axles to reach the convention center, where 15,000 to 20,000 hungry and desperate refugees had taken shelter — many of them seething with anger so intense that it seemed ready to erupt in violence at any moment.
National Guardsmen carrying rifles and wearing camouflage gear also arrived at the Louisiana Superdome, walking in a long line past a vast crowd of bedraggled people fanning themselves miserably in the heat, waited to rescued from the heat, the filth and the gagging stench inside the stadium.
Flatbed trucks carried huge crates, pallets and bags of relief supplies. Soldiers sat in the backs of open-top trucks, their rifles pointing skyward.
At the convention center, New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass got a hero's welcome as he rode down the street on the running board of a box truck and announced through a bullhorn to thunderous applause: "We got 30,000 people out of the Superdome and we're going to take care of you."
"We've got food and water on the way. We've got medical attention on the way. We're going to get you out of here safely. We're going to get all of you," he said.
As he came down the road, elderly people gave thanks and some nearly fainted with joy. Compass also warned that if anyone did anything disruptive, the troops would have to they would have to stop distributing the food and water and get out.
On Thursday, at the convention center, corpses lay abandoned outside the building, and many storm refugees complained bitterly that they had been forsaken by the government. And at the Superdome, fights and fires broke out and storm victims battled for seats on the buses taking them to the Houston Astrodome.
Blum of the National Guard said 7,000 National Guardsmen arriving in Louisiana on Friday would be dedicated to restoring order in New Orleans. He said half of them had just returned from assignments overseas and are "highly proficient in the use of lethal force." He pledged to "put down" the violence "in a quick and efficient manner."
"But they are coming here to save Louisiana citizens. The only thing we are attacking is the effects of this hurricane," he said. Blum said that a huge airlift of supplies was landing Friday and that it signaled "the cavalry is and will continue to arrive."
As he left the White House for his visit to the devastated area, Bush said 600 newly arrived military police officers would be sent to the convention center to secure the site so that food and medicine could get there.
Earlier Friday, an explosion at a warehouse rocked a wide area of New Orleans before daybreak and jolted residents awake, lighting up the sky and sending a pillar of acrid gray smoke over a ruined city awash in perhaps thousands of corpses, under siege from looters, and seething with anger and resentment.
A second large fire erupted downtown in an old retail building in a dry section of Canal Street.
There were no immediate reports of injuries. But the fires deepened the sense of total collapse in the city since Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore Monday morning.
The explosion took place along the Mississippi River about 15 blocks from the French Quarter. It was about two miles from both the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. The cause of the blast was under investigation.
City officials have accused the government — namely the Federal Emergency Management Agency — of responding sluggishly.
"Get off your asses and let's do something," the mayor told WWL-AM Thursday night in a rambling interview in which he cursed, yelled and ultimately burst into tears. At one point he said: "Excuse my French — everybody in America — but I am pissed."
The National Guard arrived in force after law and order had all but broken down.
Over the past few days, police officers turned in their badges. Rescuers, law officers and medical-evacuation helicopters were shot at by storm victims. Fistfights and fires broke out at the hot and stinking Superdome as thousands of people waited in misery to board buses for the Houston Astrodome. Corpses lay out in the open in wheelchairs and in bedsheets. The looting continued.
Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA just learned about the situation at the convention center Thursday and quickly scrambled to provide food, water and medical care and remove the corpses.
Some of New Orleans' most troubled hospitals, facing dwindling supplies of food, water and medicine, resumed evacuations Friday. Rescuers finally made it into Charity Hospital, the largest public hospital and trauma center in the city, where gunshots thwarted efforts on Thursday to evacuate more than 250 patients.
"We moved all of the babies out of Charity this morning," said Keith Simon, spokesman for Acadian Ambulance Service.
While floodwaters in New Orleans appeared to stabilize, efforts continued to plug three breaches in the levees that protect this bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city, which is wedged between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.
Helicopters dropped sandbags into the breach and pilings were being pounded into the mouth of the canal Thursday to close its connection to the lake.
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said engineers are developing a plan to create new breaches in the levees so that a combination of pumping and the effects of gravity will drain the water out of the city. Removing the floodwaters will take weeks, he said.
Associated Press reporters Adam Nossiter, Brett Martel, Emily Wagster Pettus, Robert Tanner and Mary Foster contributed to this report.