Managers at the Covenant Home nursing center were prepared to cope with power outages and supply shortages following Hurricane Katrina.
NEW ORLEANS – Managers at the Covenant Home nursing center were prepared to cope with power outages and supply shortages following Hurricane Katrina. They weren’t ready for looters.
The nursing home lost its bus after the driver surrendered it to carjackers. Groups of people then drove by the center, shouting to residents, “Get out!”
On Wednesday, 80 residents, most of them in wheelchairs, were evacuated to other nursing homes in the state.
“We had excellent plans. We had enough food for 10 days,” said Peggy Hoffman, the home’s executive director. “Now we’ll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot.”
Looters around New Orleans spent another day Wednesday threatening survivors and ransacking stores. Some were desperate for food — others just wanted beer and TVs.
The risk to safety prompted Mayor Ray Nagin to order virtually all the city’s 1,500 police officers to leave their search-and-rescue mission and return to the streets to stop the thefts that turned more hostile as the city plunged deeper into chaos.
“They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas — hotels, hospitals, and we’re going to stop it right now,” Nagin said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Amid the turmoil Wednesday, thieves commandeered a forklift and used it to push up the storm shutters and break the glass of a Rite-Aid pharmacy. A crowd stormed the store, carrying out so much water and food that it dropped from their arms as they ran. The street was littered with packages of ramen noodles and other items.
Some outside the same Rite-Aid on Thursday were anxious to show they needed what they were taking. A gray-haired man who would not give his name pulled up his T-shirt to show a surgery scar and explained that he needs pads for incontinence.
“I’m a Christian. I feel bad going in there,” he said.
Earl Baker of Kenner carried toothpaste, tooth brushes and deodorant. “Look, I’m only getting necessities,” he told a reporter. “All of this is personal hygiene. I ain’t getting nothing to get drunk or high with.”
New Orleans’ homeland security chief, Terry Ebbert, said looters were breaking into stores all over town and stealing guns. He said there are gangs of armed men moving around the city. At one point, officers stranded on the roof of a hotel were fired at by people on the street.
Authorities said another officer was shot in the head and a looter was wounded in a shootout. Both were expected to survive.
Looters also chased down a state police truck full of food. The New Orleans police chief ran off looters while city officials themselves were commandeering equipment from a looted Office Depot. During a state of emergency, authorities have broad powers to take private supplies and buildings for their use.
Tenet Healthcare Corp. said late Wednesday that it would evacuate one of its fully functioning hospitals in Gretna after a supply truck carrying food, water, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals was held up by gunmen. The hospital has about 350 staff members and 125 to 150 patients.
“There are physical threats to safety from roving bands of armed individuals with weapons who are threatening the safety of the hospital,” spokesman Steven Campanini said.
In another incident, two officers drew their guns on looters, but the thieves left without incident. One of the officers said he was not going to arrest anyone for snatching up food and water.
“It’s really difficult because my opinion of the looting is it started with people running out of food, and you can’t really argue with that too much,” Nagin said. “Then it escalated to this kind of mass chaos where people are taking electronic stuff and all that.”
Gov. Kathleen Blanco said she has asked the White House to send more people to help with evacuations and rescues, thereby freeing up National Guardsmen to stop looters.
An additional 10,000 National Guard troops from across the country began pouring into the Gulf Coast on Wednesday to shore up security, rescue and relief operations. The new units brought the number of troops dedicated to the effort to more than 28,000, in what may be the largest military response to a natural disaster.
“We will restore law and order,” Blanco said. “What angers me the most is that disasters like this often bring out the worst in people. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior.”