FLEEING A DROWNED CITY

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana -- The first of New Orleans evacuees began arriving in Texas early Thursday as the Gulf Coast struggled to cope with what President Bush called "one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history."

"This recovery will take years," Bush said in an address from the White House Rose Garden, hours after viewing parts of the Gulf Coast from aboard Air Force One.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath damaged beyond repair tens of thousands of homes and businesses in the region and left more than 78,000 people in emergency shelters, the president said.

Bush on Wednesday announced a massive federal mobilization to help victims, warning that "the challenges that we face on the ground are unprecedented."

"This recovery will take years," Bush said in an address from the White House Rose Garden, hours after viewing parts of the Gulf Coast from aboard Air Force One.

The Bush administration earlier in the day declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf Coast in an effort to stop the spread of disease in the storm's wake.

"We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said.

'Renegade bus'
Buses carrying evacuees from New Orleans began arriving at Houston's Astrodome overnight as Louisiana officials began clearing out the hurricane-ravaged Superdome.

The first bus -- an Orleans Parish school bus -- pulled up to the gates of the Astrodome about 10:30 p.m. (11:30 p.m. EDT) Wednesday, surprising authorities who were not expecting anyone for several more hours.

Organizers later declared it a "renegade bus," saying it was carrying people fleeing the floodwaters in New Orleans but was not part of the official caravan of commercial buses traveling from the Superdome.

The Astrodome will provide evacuees many comforts the Superdome lacked after Hurricane Katrina ripped off parts of the roof, and knocked out electricity and water on Monday.

People staying there will have cots to sleep on, be able to take showers, have a hot meal and be able to make phone calls. About 20,000 people are expected to be transferred from New Orleans to Houston -- a trip of about 330 miles.

It was not immediately clear how the 50 people on board the renegade transportation came into possession of the bus, but officials in the Astrodome said they would be allowed to stay. A 20-year-old man was behind the wheel.

New Orleans residents were warned to expect a prolonged displacement.

"I surmise there are people in New Orleans who won't be able to get back to their homes for months, if ever," said Michael Brown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency chief who is leading the federal response on the ground.

N.O. mayor: Thousands likely dead
Meanwhile, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin reportedly said Wednesday that the storm probably killed thousands of people in his battered and flood-stricken city.

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and others dead in attics, The Associated Press quoted Nagin as saying. When asked how many, he reportedly said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."

Nagin and other Louisiana officials had refused to give a casualty count in the past, saying emergency workers were focusing on the rescue effort.

Rescue workers continued to push bodies aside Wednesday as they used boats and helicopters to search for survivors. Their efforts have been hampered by lawlessness and damaged infrastructure.

Electricity was out for more than 2.3 million people in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.

Meanwhile, Katrina's effect on oil supplies and gas prices spread nationwide, prompting the White House to tap the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

News of disruptions in the gas supply sparked runs on stations and a sharp spike in prices, with some drivers in Atlanta, Georgia, facing prices above $5 a gallon.

Pentagon officials said Wednesday the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi have ordered the mobilization of an additional 10,000 National Guard troops to provide security and help with hurricane relief. Lawless streets
Widespread looting of New Orleans businesses continued Wednesday, punctuated by the sounds of gunfire.

Nagin ordered most of the city's police to halt their rescue efforts and concentrate instead on stopping looters who have grown more aggressive, the AP reported.

Some of the looting was taking place in front of police, with little response. Along Canal Street, the city's main thoroughfare, police allowed people to take shoes out of stores as long as the shoes fit.

At least seven hospitals in the city were evacuating patients and personnel because of flooding and a frightening breakdown in public order.

Doctors said two patients died Wednesday at Charity Hospital as a result of the lack of electricity and water.

The head of Acadian Ambulance Service, Richard Zuschlag, said his workers had been victimized by the mayhem sweeping the city as they worked to evacuate hospitals.

"Things are not good in New Orleans. It's very serious now," Zuschlag said.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said she was "just furious" about the lawlessness.

"We'll do what it takes to bring law and order to our region," she said at a news conference.

Law enforcement officials expressed frustration with their inability to communicate.

"The communication systems throughout the entire Gulf Coast are severely compromised," said Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was planning to use helicopters to begin dropping 15,000-pound sandbags into breaches in the city's levee system -- the first step in trying to control the flooding that submerged most of the city. (See video on levee repairs -- 3:53)

The flow of water into New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain finally abated, and the lake level began dropping gradually, Corps officials said. But engineers won't begin trying to pump out the water until the breaches are plugged.

Across Lake Pontchartrain, in Slidell, Louisiana, Mayor Ben Morris was among thousands of homeless residents who have been unable to communicate with anyone outside Slidell.

Morris estimated 90 percent of the city's residences were destroyed or damaged and that half of its 30,000 residents will be left homeless.

Mississippi death toll rising
The breadth of the brutality of Hurricane Katrina became clearer Wednesday as more death toll figures began to filter in from Mississippi's coastal region.

Authorities said at least 185 people died in Monday's Category 4 storm.

In Hancock County alone, Sheriff Eddie Jennings put the death toll at 85, with 60 people dead in Pearlington, 22 in Waveland, two in Bay St. Louis and one body that had washed up on the beach.

In neighboring Harrison County, which is home to Gulfport and Biloxi, authorities reported 100 bodies had been found, an emergency official in the state capital, Jackson, told CNN.

Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said crews had been unable to reach half of the community.

"It may take several days and maybe even weeks to get to because we're talking about major buildings ... collapsing and just what we call 'pancaking,' " he said at a news conference.

Meanwhile, the 3,000 members of the Mississippi National Guard activated after the storm are literally "using chainsaws to cut their way in to the coast," said Brad Mayo, public information officer for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

That's because of the huge amount of fallen trees in what's called the "pine belt" of the state, which cuts a huge swath across Mississippi north of the coastal counties.

In the hardest-hit areas in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, emergency officials are setting up MASH-style hospitals in tents and portable structures to try to help those injured or rescued.

Mayo said the state is asking for doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians from neighboring states for their help.

Katrina left Biloxi's Keesler Air Force Base -- home to the U.S. Air Force fleet of hurricane-hunter aircraft -- 95 percent "smashed," an Air Force official at the base said Wednesday.

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