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National Guardsmen pour into Louisiana; Bush admits the relief effort has fallen short

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President George W. Bush (L) sits with Patrick Wright on the steps of what was his parents' house on Friday. Wright's parents survived the storm despite being inside the home while it was destroyed. Bush visited the town of Biloxi, in parts completely devastated, during his tour of the Gulf Coast to view damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images )

Washington, DC — (AP) More than four days after Hurricane Katrina struck, the National Guard arrived in force Friday with food, water and weapons, churning through the floodwaters in a vast truck convoy that was met with both catcalls and cries of "Thank you, Jesus!" from the suffering multitudes.

"Lord, I thank you for getting us out of here," Leschia Radford said at the New Orleans Convention Center as the military rolled in with orders to restore order and feed the hungry.

But 46-year-old Michael Levy said, "They should have been here days ago. I ain't glad to see 'em" - words that brought shouts of "Hell, yeah!" from those around him. He added: "We've been sleeping on the ... ground like rats. I say burn this whole ... city down."

The arrival of the thousands of soldiers came amid blistering complaints from the mayor and others that the federal government had bungled the relief effort and let people die in the streets for lack of food, water or medicine. Thousands are feared dead in New Orleans.

"The people of our city are holding on by a thread," Mayor Ray Nagin warned in a statement to CNN. "Time has run out. Can we survive another night? And who can we depend on? Only God knows."

They don't have a clue what's going on down here.
- New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin

In Washington, President Bush admitted "the results are not acceptable" and pledged to bolster the relief efforts. He visited the stricken Gulf Coast later in the day, and pledged in Mobile, Ala.: "What is not working right, we're going to make it right."

With a cigar-chomping general in the convoy's lead vehicle, the camouflage-green National Guard trucks rolled through muddy water up to their axles to reach the convention center, where 15,000 to 20,000 desperate and often seething refugees had taken shelter. It was the first major relief convoy to reach the convention center.

Authorities set up six food and water lines, with dozens of armed guards keeping watch. The crowd was for the most part orderly and grateful to finally have a meal.

Diane Sylvester, 49, was the first person through the line, and she emerged with two bottles of water and a pork rib meal. "Something is better than nothing," she said as she mopped sweat from her brow. "I feel great to see the military here. I know I'm saved."

Angela Jones, 24, began guzzling her water before she even cleared the line.

"Like steak and potatoes!" she said of the cool water. "I didn't think I was going to make it through that."

Guardsmen carrying rifles also arrived at the Louisiana Superdome, where a vast crowd of bedraggled people fanned themselves, waiting to rescued from the heat, the filth and the gagging stench inside the stadium.

Flatbed trucks carried huge crates, pallets and bags of relief supplies, including Meals Ready to Eat. Soldiers in fatigues sat in the backs of open-top trucks, their rifles pointing skyward.

Both the Superdome and the convention center had seemed like powder kegs in recent days: Fistfights and fires broke out, storm victims complained that the government had forsaken them, and furious evacuees menaced police.

The military said its first priority was delivering food and water, after which it would begin evacuating people - something that could take days.

"As fast as we can, we'll move them out," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore. "Worse things have happened to America," he added. "We're going to overcome this, too. It's not our fault. The storm came and flooded the city."

New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass rode down the street on the running board of a box truck and announced through a bullhorn to thunderous applause: "We got 30,000 people out of the Superdome and we're going to take care of you."

"We've got food and water on the way. We've got medical attention on the way. We're going to get you out of here safely. We're going to get all of you," he said.

As he came down the road, elderly people gave thanks and some nearly fainted with joy. Compass also warned that if anyone did anything disruptive, the troops would have to stop distributing the food and water and get out.

Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of National Guard, said that by Saturday night, there will be 7,000 National Guard soldiers in New Orleans. He said half of them had just returned from assignments overseas and are "highly proficient in the use of lethal force." He pledged to put down the violence "in a quick and efficient manner."

"The cavalry is and will continue to arrive," he said.

Earlier Friday, an explosion at a warehouse rocked a wide area of New Orleans before daybreak and jolted residents awake, lighting up the sky and sending a pillar of acrid gray smoke over a ruined city awash in perhaps thousands of corpses. A second large fire erupted downtown in an old retail building in a dry section of Canal Street.

There were no immediate reports of injuries. But the fires deepened the sense of total collapse in the city since Katrina slammed ashore Monday morning.

The National Guard arrived in force after law and order had all but broken down.

Over the past few days, police officers turned in their badges. Rescuers, law officers and medical-evacuation helicopters were shot at by storm victims. Fistfights and fires broke out at the Superdome as thousands of people waited in misery to board buses for the Houston Astrodome. Corpses lay out in the open in wheelchairs and in bedsheets. The looting continued, and the police chief said even officers were breaking into stores for food and water.

"Our officers have been urinating and defecating in the basement of Harrah's Casino," Compass said. "They have been going in stores to feed themselves."

City officials have accused the government - namely the Federal Emergency Management Agency - of responding sluggishly.

"Get off your asses and let's do something," the mayor told WWL-AM Thursday night in a rambling interview in which he cursed, yelled and ultimately burst into tears. At one point he said: "Excuse my French - everybody in America - but I am pissed."

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA just learned about the situation at the convention center Thursday and scrambled to provide food, water and medical care and remove the corpses.

Some of New Orleans' hospitals, facing dwindling supplies of food, water and medicine, resumed evacuations Friday. Rescuers finally made it into Charity Hospital, the largest public hospital and trauma center in the city, where gunfire thwarted efforts on Thursday to evacuate more than 250 patients.

"We moved all of the babies out of Charity this morning," said Keith Simon, spokesman for Acadian Ambulance Service.

While the floodwaters in New Orleans appeared to stabilize, efforts continued to plug three breaches in the levees that protect this bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city, which is wedged between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

Helicopters dropped sandbags into the breach and pilings were being pounded into the mouth of the canal Thursday to close its connection to the lake.

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said engineers are developing a plan to create new breaches in the levees so that a combination of pumping and the effects of gravity will drain the water out of the city. Removing the floodwaters will take weeks, he said.