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Big Easy?

WASHINGTON – As New Orleans faces its worst crisis yet in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – with lawlessness, shootings, lootings rampant in the flooded city – House Speaker Dennis Hastert delivered a stunning message: Don’t waste money rebuilding.

Hastert said it makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that’s seven feet under sea level.

“It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed,” the Illinois Republican said in an interview yesterday with the Daily Herald of Arlington, Ill.

Hastert said there was no question the people of New Orleans would rebuild their city, but noted that federal insurance and other federal aid was involved.

Hastert announced today that the House, currently at the end of its summer break, would return for an emergency session tomorrow to approve some $10 billion in federal aid for hurricane victims.

“In the wake of this disaster, the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida should know that the United States Congress stands ready to help them in their time of need,” he said in a joint statement with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Thousands of National Guard troops in armored vehicles moved into flood-ravaged New Orleans today amid mounting lawlessness marked by gunfire, trash fires and rising tensions among desperate refugees low on food and water.

At least seven corpses were scattered outside the New Orleans Convention Center where displaced residents broke through the steel doors of a food service entrance.

Chaos reigned at the nearby Superdome where about 25,000 people awaited evacuation by bus to the Houston Astrodome some 350 miles away.

Tense, angry crowds stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the Superdome’s main concourse behind barricades manned by National Guardsmen.

When buses finally arrived, fights erupted as many jostled for position.

Federal Emergency Management rescuers suspended operations in some areas where gunfire broke out, including attacks on the rescue helicopters that have brought thousands to safety.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan said that at every hospital there are reports of helicopters being fired on as they come to evacuate patients.

“There are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, ‘You better come get my family,” Ben-Iesan said, according to the Associated Press.

Police have warned reporters that while most stranded residents are orderly, they should be careful given the desperation, NBC News reported.

“We were told don’t drink or eat in public as it could lead to a mob situation,” NBC’s Michelle Hofland said. “We were told that by sundown to get out of here.”

President Bush, who will tour the region tomorrow, said another 10,000 National Guardsman from across the country are being deployed, bringing the total to about 18,000.

In an interview this morning broadcast live on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the president urged a crackdown on the lawlessness.

“I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this – whether it be looting, or price gouging at the gasoline pump, or taking advantage of charitable giving or insurance fraud,” Bush said. “And I’ve made that clear to our attorney general. The citizens ought to be working together.”

Yesterday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said that at a minimum, hundreds have died, but “most likely, thousands.” If so, it would make Hurricane Katrina the country’s worst natural disaster since at least the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which killed anywhere from 500 to 6,000 people.

Nagin ordered the city of nearly 500,000 to be evacuated over the weekend as Katrina approached. Since then, he has called for the 50,000 to 100,000 who remained to leave because the city has become inhabitable.

People will not be allowed back into their homes for at least a month or two, he said.

Just after the eye of the hurricane hit shore to the east, New Orleans thought it had escaped catastrophe, but two levee breaks near Lake Pontchartrain released floodwaters that covered 80 percent of the city.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told NBC’s “Today” show the aid effort is complicated, with “an ongoing flood situation even as we’re in the middle of recovering from the hurricane.”

“We’re in a position where there are additional people we have to look for,” he said. “We’re hoping to get the most people out as we can in the next 12 hours and 24 hours, but we’re going to continue to search until we’re sure we’ve got everybody safe.”

Last night, Nagin ordered the city’s 1,500 police officers to leave their search-and-rescue mission and focus on stopping the looting.

The mayor said looters and armed gangs “are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas ? hotels, hospitals and we’re going to stop it right now.”

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