NEW ORLEANS — The bodies of more than 40 mostly elderly patients were found in a flooded hospital in the biggest known cluster of corpses to be discovered so far in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.
The circumstances under which they died were unclear, with at least one hospital official saying Monday that some of the patients had died before the storm while the others succumbed to causes unrelated to Katrina.
The announcement, which raises Louisiana's official death toll to nearly 280, came as President Bush got his first up-close look at the destruction.
"My impression of New Orleans is this: That there is a recovery on the way," Bush said in the shadow of a freeway overpass, destroyed cars littering the landscape behind him.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's embattled director, Mike Brown, also announced Monday he would resign "in the best interest of the agency and best interest of the president." Brown has been vilified for the slow and unfocused federal response to the hurricane, already considered the nation's costliest ever.
The White House moved quickly to replace him, installing a top agency official, R. David Paulison, with three decades of firefighting experience as acting director.
Despite the devastation and miles of still flooded streets, there were encouraging signs of recovery: Nearly two-thirds of southeastern Louisiana's water treatment plants were up and running. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport planned to resume limited passenger service Tuesday. Forty-one of 174 permanent pumps were in operation, on pace to help drain the still half-flooded city by Oct. 8.
That doesn't mean a quick return to normalcy for residents or for business owners, who were let back in Monday to assess the damage and begin the slow process of starting over.
FEMA expects to provide temporary housing for 200,000 hurricane victims for up to five years, most in Louisiana. The agency is planning to use trailer homes to create "temporary cities," some with populations up to 25,000, said Brad Fair, head of the FEMA housing effort.
"This may not be quite on the scale of building the pyramids, but it's close," Fair said. He had no cost estimates.
Insurance experts have doubled to at least $40 billion their estimate of insured losses caused by Katrina. Risk Management Solutions Inc. of Newark, Calif., put the total economic damage at more than $125 billion.
Lawmakers in Washington proposed some tax changes Monday to help the victims get back on their feet, such as letting them tap retirement accounts without penalty and encouraging donations of cash, food and school books.
Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial called for a compensation fund for the hurricane victims similar to the fund created for victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The death toll has also been rising as more bodies are recovered across the region.
At least 40 bodies were found Sunday at the 317-bed Memorial Medical Center, but the exact number was unclear. Bob Johannesen, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said 45 patients had been found; hospital assistant administrator David Goodson said there were 44, plus three on the grounds.
Also unclear was exactly how the patients died.
Steven Campanini, a spokesman for the hospital's owner, Tenet Healthcare Corp., said some of the patients died before the storm arrived, and he said none of the deaths resulted from lack of food, water or electricity to power medical equipment. He said many had been seriously ill.
Goodson said patients died while waiting to be evacuated over the four days after the hurricane hit as temperatures inside the hospital reached 106 degrees. "I would suggest that that had a lot to do with" the deaths, he said of the heat.
Family members and nurses were "literally standing over the patients, fanning them," he said.
Police Chief Eddie Compass declined to answer any questions about the bodies, including whether officers received any calls for help from those inside the hospital after it was evacuated.
Dr. Jeffrey Kochan, a Philadelphia radiologist volunteering in New Orleans, said members of the team that recovered the bodies from the hospital in the city's Uptown section told him they found 36 corpses floating on the first floor.
"These guys were just venting. They need to talk," he said. "They're seeing things no human being should have to see."
Bush, in his third visit to New Orleans since the storm, made his first foray to the streets Monday and toured the city for 45 minutes aboard the back of a truck, forcing him at times to duck to avoid low-hanging electrical wires and branches.
He disputed suggestions that the government responded sluggishly because the victims were mostly poor and black.
"The storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort," the president said. "When those Coast Guard choppers, many of whom were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin."
In New Orleans' central business district — which includes oil and gas companies, hotels, restaurants, banks and brokerages — business owners were issued passes into the city to retrieve vital records or equipment, such as computers.
Among the businessmen allowed back into New Orleans on Monday was Terry Cockerham, owner of Service Glass, which installs windows at businesses downtown. He has been working out of his house because his business was destroyed by looters and flooding.
"This is about the most work I've ever had," he said. "We'll work seven days a week until we get this job finished. I don't want to get rich. I just want to get everything back right."
In the French Quarter, Nick Ditta was at Mango Mango, the bar he manages on Bourbon Street, searching for time cards. "It's a mess, man. There is no doubt about it," Ditta said. "But our people are going to get paid. That's all I'm worried about."
New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau president J. Stephen Perry said Katrina cost the city about 100 to 200 major conventions. But he expected the tourism industry to be among the first to bounce back, since the French Quarter and many hotels suffered little damage.
"The really positive thing long-term is the core of our infrastructure of the $5 billion to $8 billion tourism industry remained intact," Perry said. "As odd as it may sound right now, we are optimistic that this recovery is not only going to happen, its going to happen well, and we're going to have a great city going again."
Contributing: Erin McClam, Mary Foster, Colleen Long, Warren Levinson, Howie Rumberg.