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Catastrophe unimaginable

NEW ORLEANS, Wednesday (AFP) Hurricane-battered New Orleans was consumed by a catastrophe of unimagined scale Tuesday, cut off from the outside world, submerged by rising floodwaters and troubled by signs of fraying public order.

"The devastation is greater than our worst fears," said Louisiana state Governor Kathleen Blanco, painting a bleak picture of the situation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "It is just totally overwhelming. It is a tragedy of great proportions."

"There's no electricity and won't be any for quite a while," the governor told reporters. "There's no water. And there's no food to be had.

"The communications network is completely gone," Blanco said. "We think there may be only one major way into the city right now."

Hundreds of looters ransacked shops on the edge of the storied French Quarter and elsewhere as authorities searched for ways to stop floodwaters spawned by deadly Hurricane Katrina from further swamping the city, which authorities said was already 80 percent submerged.

New Orleans, most of which is below sea level, is surrounded on three sides by bodies of water, with Lake Pontchartrain in the north, Lake Borgne in the east and the Mississippi River in the south.

Most of the flooding was being caused by a breach in the levee holding back Lake Pontchartrain, officials said, and US military engineers were searching for ways to plug the hole, including dropping shipping containers filled with sand from airplanes.

"The breach in the 17th Street canal is about 200 feet (60 meters) wide," New Orleans Police Lieutenant Julie Wilson told local WWL-TV. "The water is going to keep coming in until it reaches the level of the lake. I don't know what they are going to do."

Fleeing flooded areas, hundreds of soaking wet, tired and thirsty people, some carrying babies, crossed the St. Claude drawbridge hoping to make their way to the massive Superdome stadium, which has been turned into an emergency shelter. Many crossing the bridge walked barefoot, having lost their shoes in the floodwaters. Some were able to bring a few possessions with them. Scores had dogs and cats, and one woman even brought her rabbit.

Rescue helicopters swooped on residential areas to snatch survivors from roofs lapped by water seeping into the city of 1.4 million people known as "The Big Easy."

With live power lines, gas pipes and debris including submerged cars floating below the surface of foul waters it was too dangerous for rescue workers to use boats in some areas, meaning Coast Guard and military helicopters bore the brunt of the rescue effort.

Governor Blanco said rescuers have saved hundreds of people, but "many lives" have been lost. "We know that many lives have been lost," she said, but there was no way for authorities to put together any kind of reliable death or casualty toll.

Fires could be seen burning out of control in several areas of the city but a district fire chief who declined to be identified told AFP: "We can't get to them because of the water."

"The real problem isn't fire, it's the water," he added. "They say the water is rising an inch an hour (2.5 centimeters an hour)."

Parts of the city visited by an AFP correspondent which were dry on Monday were under as much as three feet (one meter) of water on Tuesday.

The Superdome, which is holding at least 10,000 evacuees, was surrounded by water on Tuesday. Evacuees sat tight in the massive sports arena, which itself bore Katrina's scars after having much of its outer dome ripped off on Monday.

The authorities have imposed martial law in at least two parishes in New Orleans in a bid to deter looters, a day after Katrina swept ashore.

Telephone communications with New Orleans were cut off and around 700,000 people were without power.

"Our city is in a state of devastation," Mayor Ray Nagin told WWL-TV. "We probably have 80 percent of our city under water.

"It's almost like a nightmare that I hope we wake up from."

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