| Looters hurry down a street in New Orleans. (AFP)
New Orleans, Sept. 1: “It’s like Iraq!” ' an American blurted out on TV, voice heavy with stunned disbelief.
Looting in the land of opportunity. It’s a picture of America staring out of TV screens round the clock that Americans hadn’t seen, let alone the world, much of which ' like India ' has had its eyes mesmerised by the power of the greenback.
Across New Orleans the rule of law was swept away by the floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina destroyed almost everything else. Authorities fear thousands may have died in Monday’s storm.
In a city shut down in every other way, the young and the old were walking into stores of all sizes and varieties and walking out with armfuls of candy, sunglasses, notebooks, soda and whatever else they could need or find. Wal-Mart, the symbol of US department store success as much as McDonald’s is for fast food around the world, was not spared.
Some Americans were reminded of scenes of looting in the streets of Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The world leader was getting a taste of the miseries of the less fortunate.
In another chilling similarity with Iraq, there were reports of a Chinook military helicopter pressed into rescue operation being shot at.
Such was the lawlessness that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered police to drop rescue work to fight looting and other crimes.
A “furious” Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco said: “What angers me most is disasters tend to bring out the best in everybody, and that’s what we expected to see'. Instead, it brought out the worst.”
Even President George W. Bush was forced to issue a warning against the looting. “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.”
About 1,500 of the city’s police officers, nearly the entire force, were forced back into their traditional law-keeping role. The mayor was quoted as saying that the looters “are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas' hotels, hospitals, and we’re going to stop it right now”.
Some frightened residents took security into their own hands. John Carolan was sitting on his porch in darkness just before midnight when three or four young men, one with a knife and another with a machete, stopped in front of his fence and pointed to the generator humming in the front yard.
One said, “We want the generator,” he recalled.
“I fired a couple of rounds over their heads with a .357 Magnum,” Carolan recounted to the New York Times. “They scattered.”
No one excused the looting, but many officials were careful not to paint every looter as a petty thief.
“Had New York been closed off on 9/11 who can say what they would have done'” said Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, vice-president of the New Orleans city council.
Although officials said the floodwaters had started to drop, they warned that it could take a month for it to fully drain out. Some 60,000 people had gathered at a stadium, the Superdome, waiting to be evacuated from a city known for its tourist attractions and as the birthplace of jazz.
“When there’s no food, no water, no sanitation, who can say what you would do' People were trying to protect their children,” Morrell added.
Outside a store, a woman was loading food, soda, water, bread, peanut butter and canned food into the trunk of an Oldsmobile.
“Yes, in a sense it’s wrong, but survival is the name of the game,” she said. “I’ve got six grandchildren. We didn’t know this was going to happen. The water is off. We’re trying to get supplies we need.”
With no officers in sight, people carried empty bags, shopping carts and backpacks through the door of the Rite Aid, a chain store that predominantly stocks medicines, and left them full.
Someone had earlier smashed through the front door with a stolen forklift. It still stood in the doorway. As the looters came and went, they nodded companionably to one another.