Tuesday, September 6, 2005

METAIRIE, La. — Residents of this suburb were allowed to return home briefly to gather possessions as floodwaters started to recede yesterday, and New Orleans’ mayor struck a note of optimism as engineers repaired the city’s levees.

Almost a third of New Orleans’ police force was missing in action, but a caravan of law-enforcement vehicles from across the nation poured into the city to help establish order.

Late yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it had repaired two of the city’s levees, including the 200-foot-wide breach on the 17th Street Canal. But officials warned that it might take weeks to pump floodwaters from the city.

For the first time in the week since Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin sounded upbeat about the recovery effort.

“We have more troops arriving, so we’re starting to make the kind of progress that I kind of expected earlier,” Mr. Nagin said.

In suburban Jefferson Parish, a line of cars stretched for miles, as many of the 460,000 residents got their first look at the destruction since being ordered to leave two days before the storm. The towns of Metairie and Kenner suffered heavy flooding, and thousands of homes were damaged.

Katharine Dastugue was overjoyed to find that floodwaters had gone across her lawn but stopped just inches from her doorstep. As she stood waiting for a boat to take her in, she made a list of things she hoped to salvage before being forced to leave again tomorrow.

“If I can just get my kids’ baby photos,” she said. “You can’t replace those.”

Estimates of the human toll of the storm were not known, but Mr. Nagin warned yesterday on NBC’s “Today” show that “it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have 10,000” dead in New Orleans alone.

So far, Louisiana officials have counted 59 deaths from the storm. In Mississippi, officials said Katrina killed 160.

Near Baton Rouge, La., officials opened an emergency morgue with the capacity to hold 5,000 bodies. Officials told Reuters news agency that the facility, installed in a warehouse in St. Gabriel, would be able to process 144 bodies a day with a staff of 100 working in shifts around the clock.

In New Orleans, the mayor said the city had the authority to force residents to evacuate but didn’t say whether it was taking that step. Mr. Nagin did, however, say that drinking water will no longer be handed out to residents who refuse to leave.

President Bush yesterday paid his second visit to Louisiana, where he was greeted by an open letter in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the state’s largest newspaper, that called on him to fire every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Meanwhile, the arrival of police reinforcements provided relief to New Orleans’ exhausted force. As many as 500 officers on the city’s 1,600-member force were unaccounted for, police officials said.

“Some simply left because they said they could not deal with the catastrophe,” said Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley. Officials said officers were being cycled off duty and given five-day vacations in Las Vegas and Atlanta, where they would receive counseling.

Police Superintendent Eddie Compass denied that officers deserted in droves, acknowledging that some officers abandoned their jobs but saying he didn’t know how many. Two police officers killed themselves. Another was shot in the head.

Mr. Compass said 150 had to be rescued from 8 feet of water and others had gotten infections from walking through contaminated floodwaters in New Orleans.

“No police department in the history of the world was asked to do what we were asked,” Mr. Compass said.

As law-enforcement officials and volunteers search the city for survivors, they encountered a familiar obstacle — people who have been trapped more than a week in damaged homes yet refused to leave.

“We have advised people that this city has been destroyed,” said Deputy Chief Riley, who estimated that fewer than 10,000 residents were still in New Orleans. “There is nothing here for them and no reason for them to stay, no food, no jobs, nothing.”

After sheets of metal and repeated helicopter drops of 3,000-pound sandbags succeeded in plugging the gap in the 17th Street Canal, the Corps of Engineers began pumping water back into Lake Pontchartrain. Floodwaters in the city were already receding yesterday, with the low-lying 9th Ward dropping more than a foot.

In Metairie, many residents were happy that the storm spared their homes, but angry that the failure of the levee system left them swamped.

“That’s what so devastating, that … levee breaking,” said Bobby Patrick, a resident of the neighborhood now living in Houston. “My home didn’t lose a shingle, but it’s got six feet of water in it.”

Since the storm, rumors had swirled that looters from New Orleans had begun breaking into evacuated homes in Jefferson Parish. Many were relieved to return home yesterday to find their belongings untouched — and police checkpoints on every major street corner with ID checks for parish residents.

Along with survivors returning to survey the damage to their homes, the roads into the storm-struck region were jammed with volunteers bringing relief.

FEMA has urged Americans to contact nonprofit organizations if they want to volunteer or donate. But some volunteers insisted on independent action.

On Friday, Gary Maclaughlin of Santa Cruz, Calif., flew to Nashville, Tenn., where he bought a used school bus for $2,000. He used his credit card to buy $1,500 worth of diapers, bottled water, granola bars and peanut butter crackers. By Sunday evening, he was driving loads of evacuees from the New Orleans airport to a rescue shelter in Covington, La.

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