NEW ORLEANS — The bodies of more than 40 patients found at a flooded hospital drove up the death toll in Louisiana yesterday to 279 and pushed the tally of lives taken by Hurricane Katrina in four states past 500.
The patients, many of them elderly, had died while waiting to be evacuated in the four days after the hurricane hit as temperatures in Memorial Medical Center rose to 106 degrees, said Dave Goodson, assistant administrator of the hospital, owned by Tenet Heathcare Corp.
“These patients were not abandoned,” Mr. Goodson said.
Meanwhile, more than half of southeastern Louisiana’s water-treatment plants were up and running again yesterday, and business owners were issued passes into the city to retrieve vital records or equipment as New Orleans continued to stir back to life.
President Bush, in his third trip to the ravaged region, got his first close-up look at the destruction in New Orleans yesterday, taking a tour that took him through several flooded neighborhoods.
The president said the race of hurricane victims did not factor in the response and rejected suggestions that the nation’s military was stretched too thin by the war in Iraq to deal with the Gulf Coast devastation.
In Washington, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael D. Brown announced that he is resigning “in the best interest of the agency and best interest of the president.” Mr. Brown has been vilified for the government’s sluggish response to the disaster. Last week, he was stripped of responsibility for overseeing the cleanup and was abruptly recalled to Washington.
To prevent looting, business owners wanting to enter the city’s central business district and take what they needed to run their companies were required to obtain passes.
Traffic was heavy on the only major highway into the city that was still open, and vehicles were backed up for about two miles at a National Guard checkpoint across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.
Among the businessmen allowed back was Terry Cockerham, owner of Service Glass, which installs windows at businesses downtown. He has been working out of his house because his business was destroyed by looters and flooding.
“This is about the most work I’ve ever had,” he said. “We’ll work seven days a week until we get this job finished. I don’t want to get rich. I just want to get everything back right.”
State officials said yesterday that 16 of southeastern Louisiana’s 25 major wastewater treatment plants were up and running again and that 41 of 174 permanent pumps were draining water from flooded areas. They expected an increase in temporary pumps within 24 hours.
Water in many parts of the metropolitan area was going down at least a foot a day, the Army Corps of Engineers said. Once the streets are dry, crews can begin removing debris, checking buildings and other structures for soundness, and restoring utilities.
Military cargo airplanes were set to begin spraying the area yesterday to kill flies and mosquitoes. The standing water from Katrina is expected to worsen Louisiana’s already considerable mosquito problem. Before the storm hit, the state had logged 78 cases of mosquito-borne West Nile virus and four deaths from the disease this year.
Insurance analysts doubled to at least $40 billion their estimate of insured losses caused by Katrina — a figure that would make it the world’s costliest hurricane ever. Risk Management Solutions Inc. of Newark, Calif., put the economic damage at more than $125 billion.
The number of bodies found at the hospital was not clear. Bob Johannesen, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said 45 patients had been found; Mr. Goodson said there were 44, plus three persons found dead on the hospital grounds.
Dr. Jeffrey Kochan, a Philadelphia-area radiologist volunteering in New Orleans, spoke with the recovery team late Sunday after 36 bodies were found floating on the first floor.
“They’re seeing things no human being should have to see,” Dr. Kochan said.
Police Superintendent Eddie Compass declined to answer questions yesterday about the discovery, including whether police received any calls for assistance from the Memorial Medical Center after the hospital was evacuated.
A spokeswoman for Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Sally Foreman, said the city knew there were people in hospitals who needed to be evacuated. The city’s first priority had been to evacuate patients in critical care units.
As workers removed bodies Sunday from the hospital, in the city’s Uptown section, reporters were kept at a distance. A white refrigerated truck carried away remains with federal police escort.
The death toll for Hurricane Katrina reached 509, making it the fifth deadliest hurricane to hit the continental United States since 1900. Bodies recovered in Louisiana reached 279, up from 197 on Sunday. In addition, 214 persons are confirmed dead in Mississippi, 14 in Florida and two in Alabama.
About 50 percent of New Orleans remained flooded — down from 80 percent early last week, and search teams continued to collect hundreds, perhaps thousands, of corpses.
Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of active-duty troops engaged in hurricane relief, reiterated Sunday that the number of dead would be “a heck of a lot lower” than initial projections of up to 10,000.