An explosion jolted residents awake early Friday, illuminating the pre-dawn sky with red and orange flames over the city where corpses rotted along flooded sidewalks and bands of armed thugs thwarted fitful rescue efforts, as Americans watched the Big Easy dissolve before their eyes.
"We're being told that this was a toxic chemical plant explosion," reports CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick. "It was a long, low rumbling this morning — I've never heard anything like it. It lit up the sky, it actually illuminated the sky."
The blast occurred at a chemical storage facility near the Mississippi River east of the French Quarter, said Lt. Michael Francis of the Harbor Police. Francis did not have any other information about the explosions and did not know if there were any casualties. At least two police boats could be seen at the scene and a hazardous material team was on route.
Despite the promise of 1,400 National Guardsmen a day to stop the looting, a $10.5 billion recovery bill in Congress and a relief effort President Bush called the biggest in U.S. history, the chaos spread.
"This is a national disgrace," said New Orleans' emergency operations chief Terry Ebbert. "We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans."
"We can take care of our own people, and we're going to do it," Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Mike Brown insisted Friday morning on CBS News' The Early Show. "We're doing absolutely everything we can to get commodities in to those folks."
Brown said the biggest surprise for his agency was the complete lack of communication once the disaster began. "We had not even been told that people had been told to go to the convention center." Now that FEMA knows, Brown said, it is diverting aid there.
"They don't have a clue what's going on down there," Mayor Ray Nagin told CBS radio affiliate WWL-AM Thursday night. "Excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed."
New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin tells CBS radio affiliate WWL-AM that he gave President Bush a piece of his mind.
How could a major U.S. city descend into anarchy?
"When your whole system, your whole civilized system goes down, this is pretty much what you get left with," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco told Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "We have no communications, no running water, no electricity, no real help."
At the hot and stinking Superdome, where tens of thousands were being evacuated by bus to Houston, fistfights and fires erupted amid a seething sea of tense, suffering people who waited in a lines that stretched a half-mile to board yellow school buses.
After a traffic jam kept buses from arriving for nearly four hours, a near-riot broke out in the scramble to get on to the buses that finally did show up, with a group of refugees breaking through a line of heavily armed National Guardsmen.
Nearby, about 15,000 to 20,000 people who had taken shelter at New Orleans Convention Center grew ever more hostile after waiting for buses for days amid the filth and the dead.
Police Chief Eddie Compass said there was such a crush around a squad of 88 officers that they retreated when they went in to check out reports of assaults.
"We have individuals who are getting raped, we have individuals who are getting beaten," Compass said. "Tourists are walking in that direction and they are getting preyed upon."
"I do not want this sense of lawlessness to continue, because it's hampering our efforts to bring people in, to save people," she said on The Early Show.
To make matters worse, the chief of the Louisiana State Police said he heard of numerous instances of New Orleans police officers — many of whom from flooded areas — turning in their badges.
"They indicated that they had lost everything and didn't feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives," Col. Henry Whitehorn said.
President Bush was to tour the devastated Gulf Coast region Friday and has asked his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Clinton to lead a private fund-raising campaign.
By Thursday evening, 11 hours after the military began evacuating the Superdome, the arena held 10,000 more people than it did at dawn. Evacuees from across the city swelled the crowd to about 30,000 because they believed the arena was the best place to get a ride out of town.
Some of those among the mostly poor crowd had been in the dome for four days without air conditioning, working toilets or a place to bathe. One military policeman was shot in the leg as he and a man scuffled for the MP's rifle. The man was arrested.
By late Thursday, the flow of refugees to the Houston Astrodome was temporarily halted with a population of 11,325, less than half the estimated 23,000 people expected.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that Dallas would host 25,000 more refugees at Reunion Arena and 25,000 others would relocate to a San Antonio warehouse at KellyUSA, a city-owned complex that once was home to an Air Force base. Houston estimated as many as 55,000 people who fled the hurricane were staying in area hotels.
While floodwaters in New Orleans appeared to stabilize, efforts continued to plug three breaches that had opened up in the levee system that protects this below-sea-level city.
Helicopters dropped sandbags into the breach and pilings were being pounded into the mouth of the canal Thursday to close its connection to Lake Pontchartrain.