Troops shift from evacuation to recovery

Comprehensive search for bodies begins

death toll estimates fall

Katrina's Wake

September 10, 2005|By Douglas Birch and Arthur Hirsch | Douglas Birch and Arthur Hirsch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Fears of a death toll near 10,000 diminished yesterday, while troops shifted from evacuating the living to recovering those killed by Hurricane Katrina.

National Guard officials said they would keep up to 50,000 troops deployed in the Gulf Coast region for the next four months, and the head of the service acknowledged the possibility that the war in Iraq may have delayed the response to the hurricane.

Thousands of survivors may yet remain here more than a week after the city ordered a "mandatory evacuation," but Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans emergency operations, said in a televised news conference yesterday that teams were starting "a recovery operation to search street by street for any remains of individuals who have passed away."

Members of the National Guard, active military and local police have already been down many of these streets while rousting survivors, leaving behind in some cases spray-painted signals for troops to follow: a circle slashed with a diagonal line indicating an empty house, a triangle or an "X" marking the presence of a dead body.

The results of those efforts so far, Ebbert said, suggest that the "catastrophic death toll some people predicted may not have in fact occurred."

In the first days after the storm, Mayor C. Ray Nagin had said he feared the storm may have killed as many as 10,000 people in the city and surrounding parishes. Before the storm hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the city had a population of nearly half a million, tens of thousands of whom were trapped by the storm surge and failures of the levee system that flooded much of the city.

The levee has been patched, and the low-lying city's pump system is coming to life, working at about a fifth of its capacity, with equipment coming from Germany and the Netherlands to hasten the process of draining the streets of waters that have turned increasingly foul.

The work of removing water is going well enough that the Army Corps of Engineers cut its estimate of how long it will take to drain the entire metropolitan area from 80 days to 40, said Tom Waters at the agency's headquarters in Washington. The estimate also reflected a more precise analysis of the topography and water depths, said Ed Halpin, a special assistant for dam safety, declining to give an estimate of how much of the city remains flooded.

Work was continuing on the levee breaks at the 17th Street, London Avenue and Industrial canals.

The break at 17th Street, which apparently occurred Monday afternoon, hours after the storm hit, allowed water from Lake Pontchartrain to gush into the city, combining with the storm surge to inundate city neighborhoods in water up to 20 feet deep in some places.

The water is contaminated with dangerous levels of lead and bacteria from sewage, the Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed. The National Environmental Trust issued details yesterday about industrial chemicals stored in the area - including carcinogenic materials and compounds toxic to the nervous system - that might be mixed in the standing flood waters.

To make sure the hazardous mix does not also include dangerous levels of nuclear materials - used in hospitals, clinics and industrial plants - a twin-engine plane equipped to detect radioactivity flew the skies over New Orleans this week. No such contamination has been reported, but the state of Louisiana requested the flights by the National Nuclear Security Administration as a precaution, said an agency official.

Some of the radioactive material, the official said, "is too dangerous not to know exactly where it is."

City officials never mentioned radioactivity, but they were explicit about the risk of water-borne disease and mosquitoes as they issued a series of evacuation orders, one tougher than the next.

The stream of survivors to a main evacuation point near the convention center slowed considerably yesterday. Among those who did show up for a helicopter lift to the airport were many elderly people and lots of people with pets

From the Louis Armstrong International Airport, they would be heading to shelters all over the country. A day after President Bush increased relief spending to $62 billion, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that an effort to distribute aid by debit cards worth up to $2,000 each will be scrapped this weekend after remaining cards are given out at shelters in Texas. A multi-state distribution would demand too much staff, FEMA said.

Evacuees elsewhere will have to apply for help through the agency's traditional route - filling out information on FEMA's Web site to receive direct bank deposits, FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said.

The prospect of survivor benefits was not enticing many people who were still resisting the evacuation yesterday.

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