A PANICKED George Bush yesterday ordered elite troops on to the streets of New Orleans in an unprecedented attempt to stop violence in the disaster-struck city spiralling out of control.
The deployment, nearly a week after Hurricane Katrina struck, will see 7,000 marines and airborne troops sent to the emergency zone, where they are expected to crack down on the gun-toting gangs terrorising survivors.
Despite a blitz of TV appearances, Bush faces mounting criticism for failing to act fast enough to avert the crisis affecting millions on the Gulf Coast.
Thousands of National Guardsmen have failed to regain control of New Orleans. Fires continue to belch smoke over the city and sporadic gunfire echoes through the flooded streets.
Military experts said last night that regular soldiers - let alone elite assault troops - had never before been used to quell disorder in the United States.
As the president announced the military operation, long-awaited packages of food, water and medicines finally started to reach the stranded hurricane victims in New Orleans. A crowd of nearly 20,000 stood outside the city's convention centre as camouflage-green supply trucks rolled through axle-deep floodwaters.
But as thousands of the hurricane victims struggled to escape from the horror inside the city, violence escalated.
Looters and armed gangs roamed the streets robbing and raping victims as they struggled to recover from the disaster. Thick black smoke blanketed the city from oil fires left to burn in a place which lacks the manpower to put them out.
Addressing the nation in a live broadcast from the White House Rose Garden, Bush said the priority for the troops was to regain control.
"The enormity of the task requires more resources," he said, promising to return to the region tomorrow. "In America we do not abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need.
"Our priorities are clear. We will complete the evacuation as quickly and safely as possible. We will not let criminals prey on the vulnerable, and we will not allow bureaucracy to get in the way of saving lives.
"The main priority is to restore and maintain law and order and assist in recover and evacuation efforts." Bush announced active duty troops from the 82nd Airborne, the 1st Calvary, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary force would arrive in the affected areas within the next 24 to 72 hours.
The decision to send in regular forces came after the president met with defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff.
But the deployment will place even greater strain on an army already struggling to meet its commitments in Iraq and other world troublespots.
There are currently 4,000 members of the Louisiana National Guard and no fewer than 12,000 guardsmen from neighbouring Mississippi serving in Iraq.
Military expert Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, said: "Regular and elite forces are basically barred from operating inside a state without the authority of that state.
"They have never had the ability to use their weapons in any state without the express consent of the state. It goes right back to the constitution."
Meanwhile, Bush pledged the city of New Orleans would be rebuilt. He said: "I know that those of you who have been hit hard by Katrina are suffering. Many are angry and desperate for help.
"Where our response is not working, we will make it right. Where our response is working, we will duplicate it.
"We have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters all along the Gulf Coast, and we will not rest until we get this right, and the job is done."
He added: "This week we have all been humbled by the awesome powers of Mother Nature. It is hard to imagine a bright future. But when you talk to the proud folks in the area, you see a spirit that cannot be broken."
Although the president said he would return to the Gulf Coast tomorrow, his initial response was deemed tardy and inadequate by many observers.
When he first spoke to the nation on Wednesday, his speech was heavily criticised.
Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and an influential conservative columnist, asked poignantly: "Does he know in his gut that the existence of looting, chaos and disease in a great American city, or cities, is a terrible blow that may have deep implications?"
Former House Speaker and would-be Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was one of several Republicans to criticise the administration. He says the disaster "puts into question all of the Homeland Security and Northern Command planning for the last four years."
New Orleans Police Chief Edwin Compass broke down as he called for more boats to help him deploy his men around the city to protect its remaining residents.
He said: "We have individuals who are getting raped and getting beaten. Tourists are walking in that direction and they are getting preyed upon."
With violence hampering relief efforts, the evacuation of the 30,000 refugees from the Superdome stadium also stalled yesterday, leaving nearly 5,000 still inside.
As the refugees waited in 90-degree heat, some passed out and were carried to a makeshift medical ward at a nearby shopping mall.
Decision to end a life in city of woe
ARRIVING in New Orleans last Sunday, I have spent a week reporting the unfolding misery and ruined lives in the aftermath of the hurricane.
But nothing, in the plethora of grim tales of disaster, compares with a terrible incident recounted to me as the week drew to a close. There was a 380-pound man stranded on the seventh floor of a New Orleans hospital. Unable to get him down five flights of stairs to the second-floor exit, through which other patients were being evacuated onto rescue boats to escape the rising floodwater, a female manager took a shocking decision. She ordered that he be given euthanasia.
A bearded, middle-aged doctor, who is still wearing his green hospital garb, tells me the sad story as he and his colleagues sit at the muddy, squalid refugee-receiving post on New Orleans' I10 Highway. He does not want to give me his name and will not identify the patient out of respect.
But he wants people to know what happened in there. His lower jaw quivers as he recalls the events of Wednesday night.
"We had minutes to get out, and I asked, 'What are we going to do about this guy, because he's a big man. It was going to be tough getting him down those stairs - the elevators weren't working. That woman turned to me and said straight out, 'We're going to help him to heaven'. It makes me want to break down, how that man's life was taken away."
It is one of so many gruesome and desperate stories that have poured forth from the tens of thousands of refugees.
There was a woman holding court in the lobby of my hotel in downtown New Orleans on Tuesday as the floodwaters lapped across the threshold. Her name was Hilary Callaghan and she was here with her husband Kevin for "a cheap thrill".
They had come from their home in Ohio on a low-cost weekend, knowing that the room rate would be lower during storm season.
"We thought we would make the hurricane part of the adventure," she enthuses as others around her are hoisting suitcases and bags of possessions over their heads and wading through the rising water to get out while they can.
I am sure that from her hotel room, where she almost certainly spent the last five or so days holed up with little or no food or water, and sewage backing up in the toilet and her fellow guests weeping in fear, that she might have changed her mind. I am sure that too that if she had seen what I have seen over the last few days, she might have thought again.
I wish that she had seen the tears rolling down the faces of the mothers who came off the evacuation helicopters clutching their naked babies and unsure whether their husbands were alive or dead.
I wish she had seen the elderly nursing home residents being winched off rooftops on to a helicopter, wrapping sheets around their heads as they were too scared to look down.
I wish she had seen the squalor in which evacuees were made to wait at the side of a road because state and federal officials couldn't get their act together to evacuate them faster.
Althea Castillo's new home is an indoor baseball stadium in Houston, Texas, which she shares with 11,000 new neighbours. She and her children Keron and Ketaj lived off tinned peaches for three days after Hurricane Katrina drove them on to the roof of their apartment block. They had hoped to ride out the storm in a hotel with Althea's niece, Tiffany Washington, who worked there. But the morning before the hurricane hit, hotel managers announced that staff could not shelter there, leaving the four of them, with Althea's husband Catalino, no time to evacuate the city.
"I don't never want to come back to New Orleans again," Althea, 32, tells me at the highway refugee post. "There's nothing here for me no more."
Then there was Charlene Brown-Williams, 41, lying on the floor of the city's airport with around 10,000 others awaiting emergency flights out. She does not know what happened to any of her friends or relatives and is being sent several states away to start a new life in a shelter. "I went to sleep on the night of the storm and I prayed. I'm still praying for those angels to come and take me. There's somebody out there with wings on their back but so far they're not coming through for me."
JACQUI GODDARD IN NEW ORLEANS