NEW ORLEANS — Soldiers coaxed some of Hurricane Katrina's stubborn holdouts from their homes Wednesday after the mayor ordered all 10,000 or so residents still in this ruined city evacuated — by force, if necessary — because of the risk of fires and disease.
"I haven't left my house in my life. I don't want to leave," said a frail-looking 86-year-old Anthony Charbonnet, shaking his head as he locked his front door and walked slowly backwards down the steps of the house where he had lived since 1955.
Charbonnet left only after a neighbor assured him: "Things will be OK. It'll be like a vacation." Still protesting, Charbonnet stepped into the ambulance in which soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division would take him to a helicopter.
As floodwaters began to slowly recede with the first of the city's pumps returning to operation, Mayor C. Ray Nagin instructed law enforcement officers and the U.S. military late Tuesday to evacuate all holdouts for their own safety. He warned that the fetid water could spread disease and that natural gas was leaking all over town.
As of midday Wednesday, there were no reports of anyone being removed by force.
"We have thousands of people who want to voluntarily evacuate at this time," Police Chief Eddie Compass said. Once they all are out, he said, "then we'll concentrate our forces on mandatory evacuation."
The stepped-up evacuation came as workers struggled find and count the corpses decaying in the 90-degree heat. Even when cadaver dogs pick up a scent, workers frequently cannot get at the bodies without heavy equipment. The mayor has estimated New Orleans' death toll could reach 10,000.
The enormity of the disaster became ever-clearer: State Rep. Nita Hutter said 30 people died at a flooded-out nursing home in Chalmette, just outside New Orleans. She said the staff left the elderly residents behind in their beds. And more than 100 people died at a dockside warehouse, waiting for rescuers to ferry them to safety, said Rep. Charlie Melancon, whose congressional district includes the area.
Meanwhile, firefighters battled blazes around New Orleans — an emerging threat in a city where the water pressure is too low to fight fires and where many people are using candles because of the lack of electricity. At the same time, workers returning to restart essential services came under sniper fire.
"We have got some information where, some possible shooters have been shooting at some employees trying to get in to the city to actually get it back up and running," police Sgt. Charlie Smith said.
"Well, we found a bunch of abandoned buildings and we are actually going to go ahead and try to retrieve some of these Ak-47s assault rifles that they have been using to shoot at helicopters and some of the people trying to get back into the city to get it back up and running."
Nagin's everyone-out directive — which superseded an earlier, milder order to evacuate made before Hurricane Katrina crashed ashore Aug. 29 — came after rescuers scouring New Orleans found hundreds of people ignoring warnings to get out.
Several residents said they heard Nagin's latest order on portable radios and were reluctantly complying.
Dolores Devron and her husband, Forcell, finally agreed to go. Dolores Devron said she was relieved the couple were allowed to take their dog with them but angry they were ordered out.
"There are dead babies tied to poles and they're dragging us out and leaving the dead babies. That ain't right!" she screamed, waving her arms as she was directed onto a troop carrier truck.
Picola Brown, 47, hobbled slowly down the street on her crutches. She said she had not been able to leave because a truck ran over her left foot shortly before the storm struck, breaking a toe.
"The mayor said everybody's got to go. I got ready. I just don't want them knocking on my door," she said.
"Where do you want to go?" asked a soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division.
She answered, "Wherever it's comfortable."
Patricia Kelly, 41, sat under a tattered, dirty green-and-white-striped patio umbrella in front of an abandoned barber and beauty shop in the devastated Ninth Ward. Her home was flooded; she was not able to get back in, but did not want to leave the neighborhood.
"I'm going to stay as long as the Lord says so," Kelly said. "If they come with a court order, then we'll leave. I hope it doesn't get to the point where we're forced out."
Sgt. Joseph Boarman of the 82nd Airborne, standing on a corner, said he understood the reluctance to leave: "It's their home. You know how hard it is to leave home, no matter what condition it's in."
In Washington, President Bush and Congress pledged on Tuesday to open separate investigations into the federal response to Katrina and New Orleans' broken levees. "Governments at all levels failed," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., repeated her call for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be made autonomous from the Department of Homeland Security and for an independent commission to investigate the federal response to the disaster.
"The people that I met in Houston — they want answers and they want to know what went wrong and they want to know what they are going to be able to count on in the future," she said on NBC's "Today" show Wednesday, two days after visiting refugees at the Astrodome. "I don't think the government can investigate itself."
The pumping-out of the city began after the Army Corps of Engineers used hundreds of sandbags and rocks over the Labor Day weekend to close a 200-foot gap in the 17th Street Canal levee that burst in the aftermath of the storm and swamped 80 percent of this below sea-level city.
Although toxic floodwaters receded inch by inch, only five of New Orleans' normal contingent of 148 drainage pumps were operating Tuesday, the Corps said.
How long it takes to drain the city could depend on the condition of the pumps — especially whether they were submerged and damaged, the Corps said. Also, the water is full of debris, and while there are screens on the pumps, it may be necessary to stop and clean them from time to time.
Associated Press writers Doug Simpson, Dan Sewell, Jim Litke, Melinda Deslatte, Matt Apuzzo and Randolph E. Schmid contributed to this report.