NEW ORLEANS — The airport reopened to commercial flights Tuesday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck more than two weeks ago, and the port was back in operation, too, as a battered New Orleans struggled to get up and running again.

The slow signs of recovery came amid promises from the White House and FEMA to learn from their mistakes and intensify their efforts to help the victims.

Northwest Airlines Flight 947 from Memphis, Tenn., — the first commercial flight into or out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport since the storm hit — landed around midday with about 30 people aboard, far fewer than the jet could hold.

Those aboard included emergency workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some carried only a few belongings in plastic bags and gym bags.

Among those returning to New Orleans was Steven Kischner, who said the mood aboard the plane was "eerie."

"I'm anxious to get home to see what our house is going to look like," said Sandy Rozales, who lives in the Lakeshore section of New Orleans, close to a levee break, and left on the last flight out of town Aug. 28 just before the hurricane hit.

She said those on the flight were "preoccupied thinking about what they'd see when they get home and hoping that the worst wasn't quite what they got."

Using generator power, New Orleans' airport was back in operation the day after the hurricane hit, but was reserved for emergency use, including evacuation flights.

The recovery could be seen along the New Orleans waterfront as well. A shipment of steel coils left the port by barge Monday, bound for a Hyundai auto plant in Greenville, Ala., port spokesman Chris Bonura said.

The port expected the arrival late Tuesday of its first cargo ship since the hurricane, and at least three more ships by week's end, said Gary LaGrange, port president and chief executive. The arriving ship was carrying up to 500 containers of coffee and wood products from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, LaGrange said.

"It's a historical moment. Two weeks ago the prognosis was six months, so to pull it off so our customers have enough faith and confidence in us is very heartwarming," LaGrange said. He added: "From a commercial and psychological standpoint, this is five stars. This shows the people of New Orleans their city is back in business."

The port of New Orleans is the gateway to a river system serving 33 states along the Mississippi River or its tributaries. The port also connects to six railroads.

In Washington, President Bush said "I take responsibility" for the government's failures in dealing with the hurricane, and he said the disaster raised questions about the nation's ability to respond to natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks.

"Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack? That's a very important question and it's in the national interest that we find out what went on so we can better respond," the president said.

The new acting director of FEMA pledged to intensify efforts to find more permanent housing for the tens of thousands of Katrina survivors now in shelters.

"We're going to get people out of the shelters. We're going to move on and get them the help they need," R. David Paulison said in his first public comments since he was named to replace Michael Brown. Brown resigned under fire over the government's sluggish response to the disaster.

Dr. Frank Minyard, the Orleans Parish coroner, said autopsies will be performed on at least 44 patients found dead at a flooded-out hospital. The discovery at the 317-bed Memorial Medical Center raised Louisiana's official death toll to nearly 280.

It was not immediately clear how the patients died.

Dave Goodson, an assistant administrator, said at least some of the patients died while waiting to be evacuated after Katrina struck, as temperatures inside the hospital reached 106 degrees. He said the heat probably contributed to some of the deaths.

Family members and nurses were "literally standing over the patients, fanning them," he said.

However, Steven Campanini, a spokesman for hospital owner Tenet Healthcare Corp., said that some of the patients lay dead in the morgue before Katrina hit, and that none of the deaths resulted from lack of food, water or electricity to power medical equipment.

The coroner suggested that further such discoveries are possible as the floodwaters recede.

"There just may be a lot of people who are still down in those deep waters, and some of waters were 10, 12, 15 feet deep," Minyard said. "My biggest fear is that we will find something down there that is way out of proportion. Hopefully, it doesn't happen, but we worry."

While public health authorities have been warning about the risk of germs from the filthy floodwaters, workers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not seeing many cases of disease.

Instead, between 40 percent and 50 percent of patients seeking emergency care have injuries — CDC has counted 148 injuries in just the past two days, Carol Rubin, an agency hurricane-relief specialist. She said they include chainsaw injuries and carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.

Sgt. John Zeller, a California National Guard engineer, said it will be at least three months before the New Orleans' public water system is fully operational. Some homes have running water now, but it is mostly untreated Mississippi River water — for anyone wanting a bath, "It's like jumping in the river right now," he said.

Some of those displaced may end up in temporary housing provided by FEMA, which expects to use trailer homes to create "temporary cities," where some 200,000 hurricane victims — most of them in Louisiana — could live for up to five years.

"This may not be quite on the scale of building the pyramids, but it's close," said Brad Fair, head of the FEMA's housing effort.

In other developments:

— Lawmakers in Washington proposed some tax changes to help storm victims, 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.

Associated Press writers Erin McClam, Mary Foster and Lisa Meyer contributed to this report.