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Levee repair fixed as mayor predicts 10,000 deaths in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS, La. — A week after Hurricane Katrina, the levee break that caused much of the area's flooding was repaired, floodwaters began to recede and the mayor made his direst prediction yet: as many as 10,000 deaths in his city alone.

Louisiana officials said Monday afternoon that the repeated helicopter droppings of 30,000-pound sandbags into the football-field-wide break in the 17th Street canal leading to Lake Ponchartrain succeeded in stopping the water, and water was being pumped from the canal back into the lake. Some parts of the city showed slipping floodwaters as the repair neared completion, with some low-lying areas dropping more more than a foot.

"We're starting to make the kind of progress that I kind of expected earlier," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said even before the plug of the break, which opened up a day after the hurricane and flooded 80 percent of the city up to 20 feet deep.

The good news came as many of the 460,000 residents of suburban Jefferson Parish waited in a line of cars that stretched for miles to briefly see damaged caused by the same levee break, and to scoop up soaked wedding pictures, baby shoes and other cherished mementoes.

"A lot of these people built these houses anticipating some flood water but nobody imagined this," sobbed Diane Dempsey, a 59-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel who could get no closer than the water line a mile from her Metairie home. "I'm going to pay someone to get me back there, anything I have to do."

"I won't be getting inside today unless I get some scuba gear," added Jack Rabito, a 61-year-old bar owner who waited for a ride to visit his one-story home that had water lapping to the gutters.

Katharine Dastugue was overjoyed to find that floodwaters had gone across her lawn but stopped just inches from her doorstep. As she stood waiting for a boat to take her in, she made a list of thing she hoped to salvage before being forced to leave again Wednesday.

"If I can just get my kids' baby photos," she said. "You can't replace those." flooding, and thousands of homes were damaged.

In New Orleans, Nagin upticked his estimate of the probable death toll in his city from merely thousands to telling NBC's "Today" show: "It wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000."

As law enforcement officers and even bands of private individuals — including actor Sean Penn — launched a door-to-door boat and air search of the city for survivors, they were running up against a familiar obstacle: People who had been trapped more than a week in damaged homes yet refused to leave.

"We have advised people that this city has been destroyed," said Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley. "There is nothing here for them and no reason for them to stay, no food, no jobs, nothing."

Riley, who estimated fewer than 10,000 people were left in the city, said some simply did not want to leave their homes — while others were hanging back to engage in criminal activities, such as looting.

Nagin said the city had the authority to force residents to evacuate but didn't say if it was taking that step. He did, however, detail one heavy-handed tactic: Water will no longer be handed out to people who refuse to leave.

In another effort of "encouragement," a Louisiana State Police SWAT team, armed with rifles, confronted two brothers at their home in the Uptown section of New Orleans, leaving one sobbing.

"I thought they were going to shoot me," said 23-year-old Leonard Thomas, weeping on his front porch. "That dude came and stuck the gun dead at my head."

One officer, who did not give his name, said his team tried to make sure that the two men understood that food and water is becoming scarce and that disease could begin spreading.

Even though almost a third of New Orleans' police force was missing in action, a caravan of law enforcement vehicles, emblazoned with emblems from across the nation and blue lights flashing, poured into the city to help establish order on the city's anarchic streets and give police a much-deserved break.

Four hundred to 500 officers on New Orleans' 1600-member force were unaccounted for, police officials said. Some lost their homes. Some were looking for families. "Some simply left because they said they could not deal with the catastrophe," said Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley. Officials said officers were being cycled off duty and given five-day vacations in Las Vegas and Atlanta, where they would also receive counseling.

At a news conference, the leader of the National Guard effort declared the city was largely free of the lawlessness that plagued it in the days following the hurricane. And he angrily lashed out at a reporter who suggested search-and-rescue operations were being stymied by random gunfire and lawlessness.

"Go on the streets of New Orleans — it's secure," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore. "Have you been to New Orleans? Did anybody accost you?"

Hopeful signs of recovery were accompanied by President Bush's second visit to Louisiana that exposed a continued rift between state and federal officials over the slowness of a relief effort. The first significant convoy of food, water and medicine didn't arrive in New Orleans until four full days after the hurricane, and the mayor and others said some survivors died awaiting relief.

While an exact death count remains elusive, Nagin warned on NBC's "Today" show that

Still, The Times-Picayune, Louisiana's largest newspaper, published an open letter to Bush, called for the firing of every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At a stop in Baton Rouge, Bush said all levels of the government were doing their best, and he pledged again: "So long as any life is in danger, we've got work to do. Where it's not going right, we're going to make it right."

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has refused to sign over National Guard control to the federal government and has turned to a Clinton administration official, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt, to help run relief efforts.

Blanco, a Democrat, was not informed of the timing of Bush's visit, nor was she immediately invited to meet him or travel with him. In fact, Blanco's office didn't know when Bush was coming until told by reporters. As reporters saw the governor sitting on the runway for a flight to Houston to visit evacuees early Monday, her staff tracked down the details and her trip was rescheduled so that she could meet the president.

While the New Orleans refugees were mostly poor and black, Jefferson Parish brought the storm's destruction to a much wider economic cross-section. The sprawling parish stretches from Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Pontchartrain in the north, and includes some of the metropolitan area's most exclusive neighborhoods.

In the enclave of Old Metairie, the rows of palatial, six-bedroom homes sustained little structural damage but had some of the worst flooding. Only a few windows were broken and the live oaks survived but the water rippled up the knobs at front doors and completely covered Mercedes-Benzes, pickup trucks and BMWs in garages.

Many residents were happy that the storm spared their homes, but angry that the failure of the levee system left them swamped. Some were considering a lawsuit against the federal government for having a levee that could survive no more than a Category 3 hurricane.

"That's what so devastating, that goddamned levee breaking," said Bobby Patrick, a resident of neighborhood now living in Houston. "My home didn't lose a shingle but it's got six feet of water in it."

Since the storm, rumors had swirled that looters had crossed over the parish line and began breaking into evacuated homes in Jefferson. Many were relieved to return home Monday to find their belongings untouched.

Walter Zehner found his front yard full of foul-smelling floodwater and a broken lock on his door from rescuers looking for stranded survivors, but nothing missing. "It could have been a lot worse," he said.

Across the neighborhood, residents took what items they could fit in a boat. One woman loaded up her boat with her collection of cashmere sweaters, her cat and the 1957 Leica camera that belonged to her grandfather. A man packed his pickup truck with his silverware, his wife's clothes and a cherished animal figurine.

Unlike the poor in New Orleans, these refugees had other places to go. And few here planned to stay through what could be a long recovery.

With police checkpoints on ever major streetcorner and ID checks for parish residents, even looting was not a major concern.

Said personal trainer Rod McClave: "I'm more concerned about them damaging my stuff just for the hell of it."

AP Baton Rouge correspondent Melinda Deslatte contributed to this story.