NEW ORLEANS - After nearly two weeks of crisis, workers here and across the battered Gulf Coast region began making small but meaningful strides yesterday in reconnecting power and other utilities, rebuilding highways, delivering mail and restoring a sense of order.
About 700 city residents were allowed to return temporarily to their homes yesterday to check their property and to retrieve belongings in largely affluent neighborhoods such as Spanish Fort on the northern edge of the city along Lake Pontchartrain and in the Lower Garden District, flush along the crescent that the Mississippi River forms around this city.
At City Hall, running water had been restored, and one engineer said he expected the building to have power soon. Newly hired workers carted city property records from the basement, saying they would be refrigerated to prevent mold from damaging them.
In Baton Rouge, state health officials revised the death toll to 154, from 118 a few days earlier, but said it would not be the final count. They said that caution, accuracy and respect were their goals and that they would not work hastily.
"I'm not going to make estimates," said Melissa Walker, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospital Services. "These are individuals who perished in a storm, and each one is very important."
But whatever the final toll, officials said Friday that their first systematic sweep of New Orleans had found far fewer bodies than expected and that the toll would probably be well below the 10,000 that some officials initially feared.
Across the region, efforts to restore basic services continued, if haltingly.
The Postal Service said that it had resumed limited mail service in some areas affected by the storm.
In Mississippi, work began Friday on a temporary road to handle two-way traffic on U.S. 90, which runs along the state's Gulf Coast and was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Federal transportation officials said the first phase of that project is to be completed in 90 days. Officials were also set to begin work on the Interstate 10 bridge that connects New Orleans with Slidell. They hoped to have one-lane, two-way traffic flowing within 45 days and two-lane, two-way traffic within 120 days. When completed, the project will restore road access into New Orleans from the east.
In New Orleans, power was being restored bit by bit to parts of the city, including the central business district. By the end of yesterday, a rail link to New Orleans was expected to be reconnected, the U.S. Department of Transportation said. Norfolk Southern Railroad has been working to repair a rail bridge across Lake Pontchartrain to reconnect the city by rail from the east for the first time since the storm hit Aug. 29.
In stark contrast with the lawlessness that took over the city in the immediate aftermath of the storm, police officials said yesterday that they had fully restored order in this water-logged city. "We have complete control over the city at this time," said P. Edwin Compass III, superintendent of the New Orleans police. "I think we have had three crimes in the last four days. This is the safest city in America."
Compass said the department was trying to get supplies, including uniforms and vehicles, so they could get officers back on the streets. Wal-Mart sent several trailers full of food, water, batteries and toiletries for the department last week.
Compass added, though, that despite the gains that other workers were making in restoring basic services, the police were still working to evacuate some residents. "We're still in the process of rescuing people from their homes," he said.
In the historic Uptown neighborhood, on higher ground by the Mississippi River, residents who were allowed to return yesterday used four-wheel-drive vehicles to reach their homes, while others hitched rides with contractors who had been hired to pump water out of the city. One resident arrived in a pontoon plane that landed on Lake Pontchartrain.
After days in which the city seemed to house only soldiers, rescuers and stragglers, there were the beginnings of a job boom.
Brian Massey, 50, who rode out the hurricane in his home two miles west of downtown, was part of a city-hired cleanup crew working along Canal Street Saturday, between the French Quarter and Superdome.
"I needed a job," said Massey, who said he worked as a plasterer before Hurricane Katrina tore holes in his roof. He said he does not have homeowner's insurance.
Capt. Billy Maltbie of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division spent yesterday at a decontamination site that his unit ran on Esplanade Avenue, beneath I-10. Maltbie said that just two days earlier, the streets were impassable in some directions from that spot. Now, however, trucks could come from every direction to be cleaned with bleach and fresh water after days spent in the flood zone.
"We're getting closer and closer," he said.