NEW ORLEANS — Searchers smashed through doors in New Orleans on Wednesday, bringing their hunt for the dead to homes that had been locked and to blocks hardest hit by Katrina's flooding. Behind those doors, officials said they expected a sharply escalating body count even as the overall death toll passed 1,000.
"There still could be quite a few, especially in the deepest flooded areas," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jeffrey Pettitt, who is overseeing the retrieval of bodies. "Some of the houses, they haven't been in yet." Officials said searchers are beginning to find more children.
The death toll in Louisiana stood at 799 on Wednesday, an increase of 153 bodies since the weekend and nearly 80 percent of the 1,036 deaths attributed to Hurricane Katrina across the Gulf Coast region. Pettitt and other officials would not speculate on what the final tally could be. They said the effort could last another four to six weeks.
About 500 people are involved in the search of locked homes, the third and most intense phase of the recovery effort. Initially, authorities made a hasty sweep through neighborhoods to identify the living and dead. That was followed by a door-to-door search, though locked doors were off-limits.
Previously, they had not entered unless they saw a body or heard someone inside. Now, even a high water mark on the side of a home was enough to allow them to go in.
At one home, Capt. Edan Jacobs of the Miami-Dade Fire Department kicked at a door a dozen times, then used a sledgehammer. The searchers, wearing special masks to ward off the mold and stench, sometimes have to go to three different entrances before they find one not blocked by refrigerators or couches.
Police officers and National Guardsmen stood by, weapons ready, as emaciated dogs circled.
"We try not to destroy the homes, but we have to get inside," said fire department Lt. Eric Baum. "Drastic circumstances call for drastic measures."
Many homes are unsafe to enter, while others lay under piles of muck and debris. Some homes are so structurally unsound they are marked, "Do not enter," and seemingly every house has mold growing from every surface.
The difficulty of gauging the number of dead in those neighborhoods will delay a final count for weeks, said Dr. Louis Cataldie, medical incident commander for Louisiana.
"There's some folks out there we can't retrieve," he said.
He said the elderly appear to make up the bulk of the dead but that searchers also are beginning to find more children.
"That's tough," he said.
As the body retrieval from Katrina accelerated, the city prepared for a new threat from Hurricane Rita, which was barreling across the Gulf of Mexico toward Texas. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin renewed his plea for residents to get out of the city.
A mandatory evacuation order was in effect for the entire east bank of the Mississippi, and some 500 buses were standing by at the convention center, but few seemed to be taking advantage. Only one person showed up to be evacuated Wednesday morning.
The Army Corps of Engineers continued pumping the water left behind by Katrina and readying the city's fractured levee system, in case the new storm took a sharp turn and targeted Louisiana. Engineers warned residents that the patched-up levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.
Though much of New Orleans was no longer submerged, those parts reclaimed from the water were a dreadful sight. A neighborhood street below the 17th Street Canal levee that was just recently pumped of flood waters looked like a river bed, with boulders, mud and branches mixing with the debris of destroyed homes.
The mayor said Wednesday that the city may be able to handle only a little more than half its full population while recovering from Katrina over the coming year.
The city had more than 484,000 residents before the hurricane left thousands of homes uninhabitable and ruined much of the community's infrastructure.
"We are probably looking at repopulating the city right now at about the 250,000 level. That's probably all we can handle within the next year," Nagin said.
On Tuesday, Pettitt's team gave the mayor's office a map of the areas where the more intensive phase of the search for bodies should be conducted. On Wednesday, emergency crews hacked their way into houses in the Ninth Ward, an impoverished section of the city notable for being the birthplace of Fats Domino and other black musicians.
Much of the final search was being conducted in eastern New Orleans. Crews probed areas of the city that just recently have been drained enough to allow ground searches — neighborhoods that were closest to the fractured levees and bore the brunt of the floodwaters' force.
As the weeks pass, the urgency of the task increases because bodies are decomposing rapidly.
Bodies are still found scattered around homes and in streets. On Tuesday, a badly decomposed corpse in the Ninth Ward lay draped over a fence, its nearly skeletized head resting on the ground and one leg jutting in the air. There was no outward indication it had been marked for removal by the search crews.
Reporters and photographers roaming the city have recorded numerous bodies in recent days around the city. One that had been marked remained in a house and visible from the street for a week before a reporter notified authorities. It was removed that day.
Pettitt, the Coast Guard official in charge of retrieval, acknowledged frustration with the process and with trying to coordinate with Kenyon International Emergency Services, the private company that has contracted with the state to remove the bodies.
Nagin last week acknowledged there had been problems with the body removal, at least in the early stages, partly because Kenyon workers were having trouble with the conditions.