By Rick Wilking
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Overwhelmed authorities struggled to evacuate survivors trapped in the rising floodwaters of New Orleans and to control looters who ran wild on Wednesday amid the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina.
Engineers tried to plug a leaking levee that was allowing lake water to pour into the city two days after the storm struck the U.S. Gulf Coast. People left stranded were running out of food and water and growing desperate as authorities tried to determine how to get them out and where to take them.
"We've sent buses in. We will be either loading them by boat, helicopter, anything that is necessary," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Katrina's death toll was more than 100 and expected to rise much higher, but efforts to count the dead took a back seat to assisting survivors.
The U.S. Energy Department said it would release oil from a strategic reserve to offset losses in the Gulf of Mexico, where the storm had shut down production. U.S. crude-oil prices eased below $70 per barrel on the news, but gasoline futures prices jumped by about 20 cents per gallon, to $2.67.
Katrina struck Louisiana on Monday with 140 mph (224 kph) winds, while slamming into the coasts of neighbouring Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida.
A 30-foot (10-metre) storm surge in Mississippi wiped away 90 percent of the buildings along the coast at Biloxi and Gulfport.
At least 110 people died in Mississippi. "We're just estimating, but the number could go double or triple from what we're talking about now," a civil defence director told the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion Ledger.
Biloxi, Mississippi, spokesman Vincent Creel earlier said the death toll would be "in the hundreds."
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu told reporters she had heard at least 50 to 100 people were dead in New Orleans.
Louisiana officials said 3,000 people had been rescued, but many more waited to be picked up in boats that cruised flooded streets or helicopters that buzzed overhead.
"I'm alive. I'm alive," shouted a joyous woman as she was ferried from a home nearly swallowed by the flood.
Rescue teams busy saving people left bodies floating in the high waters.
Looting erupted around the city as people broke into stores to grab supplies, television sets, jewellery, clothes and computers.
"It's a lot of chaos right now," Louisiana state police Director H.L. Whitehorn said.
New Orleans at first appeared to have received a glancing blow from Katrina, but the raging waters of Lake Pontchartrain tore holes in the levees that protect the low-lying city, then slowly filled it up.
Mayor Ray Nagin said 80 percent of the city was submerged in water that was in places 20 feet (6 metres) deep.
Attempts failed on Tuesday to plug a 200-foot gap (60-metre-) in the levee system with 3,000-pound (1,360-kg) sandbags and concrete barriers, but officials said they would keep trying.
"The National Guard has been dropping sandbags into it, but it's like dropping it into a black hole," Blanco said.
The lake should return to normal levels within about 36 hours and the water now flooding New Orleans would begin to drain, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers senior project engineer Al Naomi.
He said the historic French Quarter, the main draw for New Orleans' huge tourist industry, should escape with only minor flooding because it sits 5 feet (1.5 metres) above sea level.
But Nagin estimated it would be 12 to 16 weeks before residents could return. The floods knocked out electricity, contaminated the water supply and cut off most highway routes into New Orleans.
In hard-hit Jefferson Parish, parish president Aaron Broussard said a complete rebuilding would be required. "Jefferson Parish as we knew it is gone forever," he told reporters.
A million people fled the New Orleans area before Katrina arrived. But former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy estimated 80,000 were trapped in the flooded city and urged U.S. President George W. Bush to send more troops.
"We have to send the army to stop this or we will lose New Orleans and we will lose 80,000 people," Barthelemy told CNN. "If we can spend the monies that we are spending to help the people in Iraq, then we can do the same thing for New Orleans."
The U.S. military was sending a hospital ship and two helicopter-carriers to assist two other Navy ships already conducting rescues in the area. Governors of the afflicted states mobilised 8,000 National Guard troops.
Amid the looting, gun-toting citizens took to the streets in some areas to try to restore order in New Orleans. Where it was still dry, some store owners sat in front of their businesses, guns in hand.
One had put up a sign reading: "You loot, I shoot."
Police said there were dozens of carjackings overnight, by desperate survivors trying to get out of town or obtain supplies. Somebody fired at a rescue helicopter Tuesday night, forcing its crew to abandon efforts to evacuate patients from a hospital, a state official said.
Authorities were so intent on rescuing flood victims that at first they let the looting go unstopped, Nagin said.
But, he said on CNN, "It is escalating into something a little different and we're bringing it under control as we speak."
He said 3,500 National Guard troops were being sent to New Orleans. Louisiana state police were sending 40 troopers and two armoured personnel carriers.
Authorities sought to cope with a growing number homeless evacuees. Blanco said a plan was being developed to move more than 12,000 people from the Superdome stadium, which had no electricity, and other shelters because of deteriorating conditions.
Katrina knocked out electricity to about 2.3 million customers, or nearly 5 million people, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, utility companies said. Restoring power could take weeks, they warned.
U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve could be provided to an unnamed oil refining company as early as Thursday.
"This is not just a problem for the Gulf Coast, this is a problem for America," he said on CNN.
(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in Mobile, Alabama)
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