LOUISIANA - New Orleans resembled a war zone yesterday as armed police patrolled the streets to combat looters and carjackers taking advantage of the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Unrest was escalating as deteriorating conditions forced authorities to evacuate thousands of people in shelters without food or power.
Three shootings, looting and several attempted carjackings were reported yesterday.
In the flooded downtown, rescuers pushed aside bodies as they tried to help survivors, Mayor Ray Nagin said.
"We're not even dealing with dead bodies," he said.
One police officer was shot in the head by a looter in New Orleans but was expected to recover, said police spokesman Sergeant Paul Accardo.
On New Orleans' Canal Street, which resembled a canal, dozens of looters ripped open the steel gates on clothing and jewellery stores, some packing plastic garbage cans with loot to float down the street.
One man, who had about 10 pairs of jeans draped over his left arm, was asked if he was salvaging things from his store.
"No," the man shouted, "that's everybody's store."
In Biloxi, a casino resort, people picked through slot machines to see if they still contained coins.
"People are just casually walking in and filling up garbage bags and walking off like they're Santa Claus," said motel owner Marty Desei.
Across the United States Gulf Coast, rescue teams used boats and helicopters to reach stranded residents and hunt for survivors. The death toll so far is estimated at 80, mostly in Mississippi. Officials stressed that the number was uncertain and likely to be much higher.
"A lot of people lost their lives, and we still don't have any idea [how many], because the focus continues to be on rescuing those who have survived," Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said.
Water was up to 6m deep in parts of New Orleans. A shark was reported in one street.
After touring the destruction by air, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said it was not a case of homes being severely damaged, "they're simply not there".
The flooding in New Orleans was growing worse, prompting the evacuation of hotels and hospitals and an audacious plan to drop huge sandbags from helicopters to close up one of the breached levees.
With water rising perilously inside the New Orleans Superdome, Governor Blanco said the thousands of refugees huddled there would be evacuated within two days.
The dome, which became a shelter of last resort for some 20,000 people, is without electricity and has no air-conditioning. Broken toilets have also made for extremely unsanitary conditions, Blanco said.
"Conditions are degenerating rapidly," she said. "It's a very, very desperate situation."
She asked residents to spend today in prayer.
"Slowly, gradually, we will recover; we will survive; we will rebuild."
- REUTERS, AGENCIES