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New Orleans evacuations under way

Health emergency declared; thousands may be dead

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

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 announced a massive federal mobilization to help victims, warning that "the challenges that we face on the ground are unprecedented." (See video of Bush's speech -- 9:23)

"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. (Bush: 'Devastating sights')

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. (Health risks)

"We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said. (See video on health concerns -- 2:18)

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 per gallon. (Economic impact)

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. (See video on Pentagon response -- 2:14)

Federal officials asked for patience as residents of the affected areas expressing frustration with the government's response.

"I need the American people to recognize how catastrophic this is, to be patient and to work with us," said Michael Brown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency chief who is leading the federal response on the ground.

Swapping domes

The first evacuation buses departed Wednesday evening near the Louisiana Superdome, where up to 30,000 people sought shelter. Weary storm survivors stood in mobs waiting to board buses under the direction of National Guard troops. (Full story)

The Superdome had little power, no air conditioning, the toilets were backed up and both food and water were in short supply.

The first buses arrived early Thursday in Houston, Texas, where the displaced residents will be housed at the Astrodome stadium.

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," Brown said.

Some desperate people tried to walk away from the stadium on their own. Widespread looting of businesses continued, punctuated by the sounds of gunfire. (Harrowing tales)

Wednesday evening, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned 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. (Recovery efforts)

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. (Full story)

"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.

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.

Meanwhile, firefighters labored to fight a blaze in a store at the edge of the city's famed French Quarter. Firefighters had to pump floodwater from the street because hydrants didn't work.

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.

Emergency crews continued to rescue people trapped in their homes as floodwaters rose.

About 400 residents from a neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain, many of them injured or elderly people in need of medical attention, were taken to a dry location in suburban Jefferson Parish, Fire Capt. Al Martineaux said.

"All we could do was just go down the streets listening to people yelling, and when we found them, open up their roofs and get them out," he said.

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 seeks help

In Mississippi on Wednesday, an emergency official told CNN that as many as 110 people were killed in the storm, and that toll was expected to climb.

Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said crews had been unable to reach half of the community. (See video of corpse recoveries -- 3:05)

"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 told reporters at a news conference.

Hargrove also discounted reports from Tuesday that 30 people had been killed in one beachfront apartment complex, saying it wasn't true.

Coroners across the state have so far confirmed only 13 dead, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Those who left their homes should stay away, said the agency's public information officer, Brad Mayo.

"We cannot stress enough not to go back," he said. "It will be an extremely long time before people can start going back to their homes."

In the small town of Pass Christian in Harrison County, most of the homes were destroyed, and the bridge linking the town to Bay St. Louis is gone.

To the east, the tiny city of Long Beach was mostly razed by Katrina's storm surge and high winds.

In Gulfport, backhoes and dump trucks ventured onto the streets Wednesday to begin clearing roads of debris.

In the hardest-hit areas in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, emergency officials are setting up hospitals in tents and portable structures.

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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