- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Alarming predictions of as many as 10,000 dead in New Orleans may have been greatly exaggerated, with authorities saying yesterday that the first street-by-street sweep of the swamped city revealed far fewer corpses than feared.

“Some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred,” said retired Marine Col. Terry Ebbert, the city’s homeland security chief.

He declined to give a revised estimate. But he added: “Numbers so far are relatively minor, as compared to the dire projections of 10,000.”

The encouraging news came as workers repairing New Orleans’ system of levees and water pumps projected that it will take a month to dry out the city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Authorities officially shifted most of their attention to counting and removing the dead after spending days of cajoling, persuading and all but strong-arming the living into leaving the city because of the danger of fires and disease from the fetid floodwaters.

Ever since Katrina struck Aug. 29, residents, rescuers and cadaver-sniffing dogs have found bodies floating in the waters, trapped in attics or left lying on broken highways. Some were dropped off at hospital doorsteps or left slumped in wheelchairs out in the open. Mayor C. Ray Nagin suggested last weekend that “it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have 10,000” dead, and authorities ordered 25,000 body bags.

But soldiers who had been brought in over the past few days to help in the search were not seeing that kind of toll.

“There’s nothing at all in the magnitude we anticipated,” said Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commander of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Col. Ebbert said the search for the dead will be done systematically, block-by-block, with dignity and with no news media allowed to follow along. “You can imagine sitting in Houston and watching somebody removed from your parents’ property. We don’t think that’s proper,” he said.

Over the past few days, police and soldiers trying to rescue the living marked houses where corpses were found, or noted their location with Global Positioning System devices, so that the bodies could be collected later.

A dozen boats awaiting calls to retrieve bodies were lined up early yesterday on an interstate ramp that was being used as a makeshift boat launch. Soldiers also hauled the last of the bodies out of the convention center, which became an increasingly violent and chaotic place before the evacuees were finally removed a week ago.

State officials could not provide an exact count of the dead recovered so far. Corpses from New Orleans were taken to a morgue in nearby St. Gabriel, where medical examiners worked to identify the remains.

Still, thousands of stubborn holdouts were believed to be staying put in the city, and authorities continued trying to clear them out.

Police fearing deadly confrontations with jittery residents enforced a new order that bars homeowners from owning guns. That order apparently does not apply to the hundreds of M-16-toting private security guards hired to protect businesses and wealthy property owners.

But there were still no reports of anyone being taken out by force under a three-day-old order from the mayor, and there were growing indications that that was little more than an empty threat.

“We’re trying our best to persuasively negotiate, and we are not using force at this time — I cannot speak to the future,” said City Attorney Sherry Landry. “If we find it necessary, we will do so. … We would like to make this a last resort.”

In a shift, the military began providing cages to homeowners to allow them to evacuate with their pets. “We got the capacity, and it seemed like the right thing to do,” said Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore.

Across the city, there were signs of hope.

The floodwaters continued to recede, with about three dozen of the 174 pumps in the area working and an additional 17 portable pumps in place. While 350,000 people in the New Orleans area were still without electricity, utilities said some power has been restored to the central business district.

Authorities said the airport will reopen to commercial flights Sept. 19. Firefighters were heartened to learn that water pressure has begun to return, though the water is still not safe to drink.

Residents of St. Tammany Parish, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, were allowed to return to their homes to see the damage and clean up. The U.S. Postal Service opened 37 offices in several parishes south of the city, though deliveries were still impossible along flooded streets.

A $30.9 million contract was signed yesterday to rebuild the Interstate 10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain that sustained major hurricane damage. The emergency project should restore traffic to the bridge connecting New Orleans and Slidell within 45 days, officials said. Work was set to begin Monday.

Meanwhile, the political fight continued on Capitol Hill, with top Democrats saying government failures must be investigated by an independent commission rather than the bipartisan congressional committee Republicans have promised.

“The American people deserve answers independent of politics and from individuals not vested in the outcome. This can only be done through an independent commission insulated from politics,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid wrote in a letter to Republican leaders yesterday.


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