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Louisiana wants 40,000 troops

FEMA defends response; Congress considers $10.5 billion bill

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said Thursday she has requested the mobilization of 40,000 National Guard troops to restore order and assist in relief efforts in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

She said that by Friday 12,000 National Guard members will have arrived in Louisiana and that sheriff's deputies from as far away as Michigan are on the way. (See video of National Guard efforts to rein in violence -- 3:14)

"They have been issued an oath of office and now have arrest powers in the state of Louisiana," she said.

Blanco said she also has requisitioned hundreds of buses from state schools to get the evacuees out of the city. (See video of residents trying to leave -- 2:00)

The work to help survivors continued Thursday as FEMA Director Michael Brown defended the pace of rescue efforts, calling the catastrophe "ongoing."

"This disaster did not end the day Katrina made landfall," Brown told CNN.

The breach at New Orleans' 17th Street Canal is under repair, and engineers expect to close the front of the canal at Lake Pontchartrain by Thursday evening, said Walter Baumy of the Army Corps of Engineers there. (Map)

There are accessibility problems with a second breach, he said.

Only when those breaches are closed can the process of draining the city begin. (Full story)

Blanco described the project Wednesday as an "engineering nightmare." (See video of Blanco discussing rescue and recovery efforts -- 3:09)

State officials now say "thousands" of people have died in flooded New Orleans and its surrounding parishes, but no official count has been compiled, Blanco said.

Meanwhile, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued a "desperate SOS," saying that violence and lawlessness have overtaken the city, and hope is fading for the tens of thousands of starving survivors still stranded. (Full story)

Sniper fire has prevented Charity Hospital from evacuating its patients. The hospital has no electricity or water, food consists of a few cans of vegetables, and the patients had to be moved to upper floors because of looters. (Full story) (See video of a city sinking in chaos -- 2:54)

Thursday afternoon, rain began to fall on the thousands of people gathered under an overhang at the city's convention center. A National Guard helicopter dropped MREs -- meals ready to eat -- and some water bottles.

CNN's Chris Lawrence described "many, many" bodies, inside and outside the facility on New Orleans' Riverwalk. "There are multiple people dying at the convention center," he said.

Federal response

Meanwhile, as Congress returned to Washington for a special session to appropriate disaster aid, House Speaker Dennis Hastert questioned whether flood-stricken New Orleans should be rebuilt in its existing form. (Full story)

The Senate convened Thursday night and approved $10.5 billion in disaster relief. The House is expected to do the same when it takes up the matter Friday. (Full story)

FEMA says it has sent 1,400 medical personnel and 1,800 urban search and rescue personnel to the devastated areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The teams include specialists in searching collapsed buildings, giving medical attention to injured people and animals, and providing mortuary services.

FEMA Director Brown said that although some teams had to withdraw "temporarily" because of gunfire, rescue efforts are continuing. He said that food and water is being delivered to the Superdome and convention center in New Orleans and also in Mississippi and Alabama.

He responded to accusations that FEMA has been slow to respond:

"This is an ongoing disaster. This disaster did not end the day Katrina made landfall. ... What happened is we suddenly had breaches [in New Orleans], and you cannot put rescue people in there because of the ongoing disaster."

FEMA personnel's efforts were hampered by downed power lines, flooded roads and logistical nightmares caused by the storm, Brown added.

He also answered criticism that the evacuation of patients was too slow.

"You can't just go in and start taking critically ill patients out and put them in a sling and put them in a helicopter and just start delivering them from one place to another," he said.

National Guard troops in Mississippi were dealing with a coastline "almost from the western border ... to the eastern border ... basically destroyed a mile to two in," said the military commander in charge, Gen. Russell Honore. Because the population is spread out, distribution of aid has become a "challenge," he said.

Many airports in the affected areas remain covered in hurricane debris, hampering the airlifting of food, he added.

Call to contribute

President Bush urged Americans to contribute.

"The federal government will do its part, but the private sector needs to do its part as well," Bush said. (Watch Bush's speech -- 8:39.)

In addition to marshaling national resources, he has enlisted the help of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Bill Clinton to spearhead an international relief effort, similar to the one they undertook for victims of last year's tsunami in South Asia. (Full story)

Meanwhile, corporations have responded by contributing millions of dollars in relief aid. (See list)

Celebrities are holding benefits and concerts to raise money, as well. (Full story)

CNN's Joe Johns, Jim Spellman, Mike Ahlers, Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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