NEW ORLEANS – As dumbfounded hotel guests Tuesday watched from balconies and police officers stood several hundred yards away, dozens of brazen looters began ransacking flooded storefronts along New Orleans’ famed Canal Street.

“We’re so screwed,” said one New Orleans police officer just before officers put on a show of force, brandishing shotguns and using batons to clear the growing crowd off Canal Street.

The lawlessness took place as the floodwaters rose dramatically across the New Orleans area, lapping up against the tracks of the Canal Street streetcar line and into the French Quarter.

All along Canal, looters waded through the floodwaters, carrying as many clothes and as they could. Some pushed loot-laden grocery carts taken from a nearby Winn-Dixie grocery store.

At a flooded Walgreens store, police officers took control of the building and themselves dispensed medicine, diapers and other essentials to a small crowd of would-be looters.

Those bizarre scenes came as a growing desperation descended on New Orleans. City officials were coming to the grim realization that it was going to be a closed city for at least a month and perhaps far, far longer.

Helicopters were continuously crossing the New Orleans skyline, ferrying trapped residents from flooded neighborhoods to the Superdome, which itself was surrounded by floodwaters.

Eventually, officials hope to get the stranded residents to planned tent cities near Baton Rouge and Gonzales, La.

Tourists Jerry Pond and Nancy Spivey of Orlando, Fla., who got one night to enjoy the Crescent City’s charms before Hurricane Katrina hammered it, were worrying about more basic needs – finding drinkable water or a way out of town.

“This is hell,” Pond said as looters strolled by. “I can tell you this – I’m never coming back to New Orleans – never.”

Pond and Spivey, who had tried to flee the city before Katrina hit, were asking passersby if they knew any way out.

“They’re telling everyone to get out and we can’t get out,” Pond said. “They could have got us out before the storm but they didn’t do a thing to help us. Before the storm, you couldn’t find a taxi, you couldn’t find a bus. It’s just like they took everything with them and left us behind.”

At the New Orleans Marriott on Canal Street, hotel officials were desperately trying to find rides for guests to get them out of the city. Colin Rice, the hotel’s resident manager, said several hundred guests were still staying at several company properties and that the staff would be staying at the hotel even if the city remained without power for months.

Along the city’s southern outskirts, caravans of cars were evacuating along U.S. 90 – the lone route out of the city. On Interstate 10 to the west, long lines of school buses, prison buses and rescue vehicles continued to stream into the city.

In Baton Rouge, city and state officials were making preparations for city and parish commissioners to run their governments in the state capital.

Jefferson Parish, which includes suburban New Orleans, was preparing to hold an emergency council meeting in Baton Rouge Wednesday night.

“We can’t get anything done back home because we have no communication, no water, no electricity, no sewer,” said Tom Cappella, chairman of the Jefferson Parish Commission at the Baton Rouge emergency operations center.

“We have to rebuild everything from square one,” Cappella said. “We need a new sewer system, a new water system, a new electrical system. We have to rebuild our entire infrastructure and it’s going to take time.”

Cappella said he doesn’t know how many people died in Jefferson Parish but he said the devastation is staggering.

“We certainly hope the loss of life is not like 9-11 but we’re talking about this effecting nearly a million people, just in Jefferson and Orleans parishes alone,” Cappella said.

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