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New Orleans' grisly cleanup job continues

As floodwaters slowly recede, workers begin collecting bodies and sweeping up the mess.

By wire services
Published September 11, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Cadaver dogs and boatloads of forensic workers fanned out Saturday across New Orleans to collect the corpses left behind by Hurricane Katrina. Cleanup crews towed away abandoned cars and even began readying a hotel for reopening.

Despite missing 300 officers from his 1,750-strong force, police Chief Eddie Compass was upbeat as he said 200 arrests had been made since the hurricane.

"We are definitely in control of this city," Compass said.

Water-logged south Louisiana even showed signs of drying out faster than expected. Dan Hitchings, an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, flew over New Orleans Saturday and said he was "astounded at how much more land area is exposed - is dry - than it was before."

The Corps of Engineers said most of the city could be drained within a month, though some areas hit by the storm surge could take longer. The estimates are far shorter than early predictions by the corps, which has struggled to get breached levees repaired and pumps operational.

Also Saturday, Vice President Dick Cheney toured Hurricane Katrina shelter operations in Austin, Texas. Cheney also visited the Texas State Operations Center, where state officials orchestrated the intake of more than 240,000 people last week.

The confirmed death toll in Louisiana stood at 154 people Saturday, but the toll was expected to climb as crews collected bodies trapped in houses and floating in murky water.

Around the city center, crews began cleaning the mounds of trash and debris strewn by the storm and by fleeing residents.

Bulldozers pushed heaps of chairs, sleeping bags and other discarded items into giant piles at the convention center, the chaotic site where thousands initially took refuge before being evacuated a week ago. Dump trucks were hauling the debris away.

Tow truck drivers started picking up scores of abandoned cars littering the streets; other workers unloaded food and supplies for employees working in Bell South's downtown office.

At the Superdome, where thousands first sought shelter only to be trapped inside by the floodwaters, water levels had dropped markedly. Water that once submerged cars parked around the dome had dropped to about a foot high.

Thousands of residents continue to defy orders to leave the city, but security forces were not physically forcing anyone to go. Mayor Ray Nagin warned earlier that residents could be forcibly removed, but authorities have been reluctant to take that step.

Throughout the city, searchers were picking up bodies.

A team in white protective suits pulled at least eight body bags from Bethany Home, a century-old center for senior citizens.

Crews from Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, a group of volunteer medical professionals called in by the federal government, processed the bodies and took them away in refrigerated trucks.

The experts have set up a field morgue in St. Gabriel, a tiny community between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where a chain link fence shrouded in black plastic now sits near City Hall, hiding the morgue operation from onlookers.

Information from the Associated Press and Knight Ridder news service was used in this report.

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