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As exodus continues, Bush vows more help

The last survivors are moved from the Superdome and the convention center, and officials begin dealing with the dead.

By wire services
Published September 4, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Thousands more bedraggled evacuees were bused and airlifted to salvation Saturday, leaving the heart of New Orleans to the dead and dying, the elderly and frail stranded too many days without food, water or medical care.

No one knows how many were killed by Hurricane Katrina's floods and how many more succumbed waiting to be rescued. But the bodies are everywhere: hidden in attics, floating among the ruined city, crumpled on wheelchairs, abandoned on highways.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Saturday she expected the death toll to be in the thousands. And Craig Vanderwagen, rear admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service, said one morgue alone, at a St. Gabriel prison, expected 1,000 to 2,000 bodies.

In Washington, President Bush ordered more than 7,000 active duty forces to the Gulf Coast on Saturday, intensifying efforts to rescue survivors and send aid in the face of allegations the federal government did not act quickly enough.

"In America, we do not abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need," the president said. The White House said Bush would return to Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday, scrapping his plans for a Labor Day address in Maryland.

Already, the Coast Guard has rescued 9,500 people in addition to the thousand and thousands aided by local authorities, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a news conference.

Bush said that in addition to the active-duty forces being sent to the Gulf, an extra 10,000 National Guard troops were being sent. That raises the number of Guard personnel in the stricken states to about 40,000.

Also, three Carnival Cruise Lines ships have been pressed into service by the government to provide shelter for as many as 7,000 hurricane victims.

The Ecstasy, the Sensation and the Holiday will be pulled from regular use starting Monday at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The cost of the charters was not disclosed.

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, meanwhile, a new problem erupted: disease. A suspected outbreak of dysentery compelled authorities in Biloxi, Miss., to hurriedly evacuate hundreds of people from a shelter. Medical experts have warned of epidemics sweeping through crowded, unsanitary shelters.

Mississippi's death toll from Hurricane Katrina stood at 144 on Saturday, according to coroners and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

In New Orleans, most of the estimated 50,000 people who had been waiting for rescue at the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center had been taken out by bus and helicopter by Saturday.

The last 300 evacuees in the Superdome climbed aboard buses Saturday bound for new temporary shelter, leaving behind a darkened and stinking arena strewn with trash.

The sight of the last person - an elderly man wearing a Houston Rockets cap - prompted cheers from members of the Texas National Guard who were at the facility.

The convention center was "almost empty" after 4,200 people were removed, according to Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA spokesman. The crowd at the center was estimated at 25,000 earlier.

Yolando Sanders, who had been stuck at the convention center for five days, filed past corpses to reach the buses.

"Any place is better than here," she said. "People are dying over there."

Nearby, a woman lay dead in a wheelchair on the front steps. A man's body was covered in a black drape. Another had lain on a chaise lounge for four days, his stocking feet peeking out from under a quilt. Three babies died at the convention center from heat exhaustion, said Mark Kyle, a medical relief provider.

By mid afternoon, only pockets of stragglers remained in the streets around the convention center, and paramedics began carting away the dead.

A once-vibrant city of 480,000 people, overtaken just days ago by floods, looting, violence and arson, was now an empty, sodden tomb.

The number of dead won't be known for some time. Survivors were still being rescued from roofs and highways across the city.

Tens of thousands of people had been evacuated from the city, seeking safety in Texas, Tennessee, Indiana, Alabama, Arkansas and Florida.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry warned Saturday that his state was running out of room, with more than 220,000 hurricane evacuees camped out there and more coming.

Emergency workers at the Astrodome were told to expect 10,000 new arrivals daily for the next three days.

Thousands of people were at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where officials turned a Delta Blue terminal into a triage unit. Officials said 3,000 to 5,000 people had been treated at the triage unit, but fewer than 200 remain.

Dan Craig, the FEMA director of recovery, said it could take six months to get the water out of New Orleans, and the city would then need to dry out, which could take another three months.

The horror took its toll in countless ways.

Two New Orleans police officers shot and killed themselves, one Friday, one Saturday, said Capt. Marlo Defillo, a police spokesman.

A Saks Fifth Avenue store billowed smoke Saturday, as did rows of warehouses on the east bank of the Mississippi River. As they burned, Ron Seitzer, 61, washed his laundry in the dirty waters of the Mississippi River and said he couldn't take much more.

"I've never even had a nightmare or a beautiful dream about this," he said as he watched the warehouses burn. "People are just not themselves."

Information from the Associated Press, the New York Times and Knight Ridder and Cox news services was used in this report.

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