Chaos rules as rescuers soldier on

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 14, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - As authorities struggled to keep order across this ruined city, the continuing strain from Hurricane Katrina erupted when gunmen opened fire on a group of contractors and the state's largest newspaper lashed out at the federal government's response.

Despite the tensions, rescues of stranded residents continued Sunday as Coast Guard helicopters picked up refugees and the flood waters began to recede, leaving the grisly task of collecting bodies.

Federal officials urged those still left in New Orleans to leave for their own safety. Large-scale evacuations were completed at the Superdome and Convention Center.

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The death toll across the Gulf Coast was not known. But bodies were everywhere: floating in canals, slumped in wheelchairs, abandoned on highways and medians and hidden in attics.

''I think it's evident it's in the thousands,'' Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Sunday on CNN, echoing predictions by city and state officials last week.

The Times-Picayune, in an open letter to President Bush, called for the firing of every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying they failed to rescue thousands of citizens stranded by Katrina.

''We're angry, Mr. President, and we'll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry,'' the editorial said. ''Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That's to the government's shame.''

''Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially,'' the letter said. ''No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced.''

One bright spot to the crisis was to the west, where neighboring Jefferson Parish was to allow residents back in Monday - as long as they show a valid ID proving residency, bring food, have a full tank of gas and don't drink the water.

Parish President Aaron Broussard warned the 460,000 residents that they would find all traffic signals destroyed, no open stores and a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

He recommended that women not come alone.

Violence boiled over when 14 contractors on their way to help plug the breech in the 17th Street Canal came under fire as they traveled across a bridge under police escort, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Police shot at eight people carrying guns, killing five or six, Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley said. None of the contractors was injured, authorities said.