So far, fewer bodies than feared
Meanwhile, FEMA officials decide to scrap plans to give debit cards to storm victims.
By wire services
Published September 10, 2005
NEW ORLEANS - Alarming predictions of as many as 10,000 dead in New Orleans may have been exaggerated, authorities said Friday, as the first street-by-street sweep of the swamped city revealed fewer corpses than feared.
"Some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred," said Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security chief.
He declined to give a revised estimate, but said: "Numbers so far are relatively minor as compared to the dire projections of 10,000."
The news came as workers repairing New Orleans' system of levees and water pumps projected Friday that it will take a month to dry out the city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Also Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will discontinue its program to distribute debit cards worth as much as $2,000 to hurricane victims, two days after announcing the plan to provide quick relief.
FEMA officials said the program will be scrapped after workers finish distributing cards this weekend at shelters in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, where many of the evacuees were moved. No cards will be issued to victims in other states.
Storm victims at other locations will have to apply for expedited aid through the agency's traditional route - filling out information on FEMA's Web site to receive direct bank deposits, FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said.
"We tried it as an innovative way to get aid to evacuee populations in Texas. We decided it would be more expeditious with direct deposits," she said, citing the large staffing operation that would be required to replicate the Texas operation in other states.
Back in New Orleans, authorities on Friday officially shifted their attention to counting and removing the dead after spending days cajoling, persuading and all but strong-arming the living into leaving the city because of the danger of fires and disease from the fetid floodwaters.
Since the hurricane struck Aug. 29, residents, rescuers and cadaver-sniffing dogs have found bodies floating in the waters, trapped in attics or left lying on broken highways. Some were dropped off at hospital doorsteps or left slumped in wheelchairs out in the open.
Mayor Ray Nagin suggested last weekend that "it wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000" dead, and authorities ordered 25,000 body bags. But soldiers who had been brought in over the past few days to help in the search say they have not seen that kind of toll.
"There's nothing at all in the magnitude we anticipated," said Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.
Ebbert said the search for the dead will be done systematically, block-by-block, with dignity and with no news media allowed to follow along. "You can imagine sitting in Houston and watching somebody removed from your parents' property. We don't think that's proper," he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said most of the city could be drained by Oct. 2, but some of the eastern areas of New Orleans and the hard-hit community of Chalmette, across the Mississippi River, could be under water until Oct. 8.
The Corps had previously said it could take as long as 80 days to drain the city. Friday marked the first time engineers offered detailed time tables.
The effort to get water out of the city, which had been 80 percent flooded after the storm and levee breaches, was helped by dry weather and gaps blown in the levees to allow floodwaters to drain out.
Over the past few days, police and soldiers trying to rescue the living marked houses where corpses were found, or noted their location with global positioning devices, so that the bodies could be collected later.
A dozen boats awaiting calls to retrieve bodies were lined up early Friday on an interstate ramp that was being used as a boat launch. Soldiers also removed the last of the bodies from the city's convention center, which became an increasingly violent and chaotic place before evacuees were rescued a week ago.
State officials did not provide a count of the dead recovered so far. Corpses from New Orleans were taken to a morgue in nearby St. Gabriel, where medical examiners worked to identify the remains.
Still, thousands of holdouts were thought to be staying put in the city, and authorities continued trying to clear them out.
Police fearing deadly confrontations with residents enforced a new order that bars homeowners from owning guns. But there were still no reports of anyone being taken out by force under a 3-day-old order from the mayor.
"We're trying our best to persuasively negotiate and we are not using force at this time - I cannot speak to the future," said city attorney Sherry Landry. "If we find it necessary we will do so. ... We would like to make this a last resort."
Across the city, there were signs of hope.
The floodwaters continued to recede, with about three dozen of the 174 pumps in the area working and an additional 17 portable pumps in place. While 350,000 people in the area were still without electricity, utilities said some power has been restored to the central business district.
Authorities said the airport will reopen to commercial flights Sept. 19. Firefighters were heartened to learn that water pressure has begun to return, though the water is still not safe to drink.
Residents of St. Tammany Parish, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, were allowed to return to their homes to check for damage. The Postal Service opened 37 offices in several parishes south of the city.
[Last modified September 10, 2005, 01:23:18]
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