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Bracing for horror: Receding flood will yield more bodies

NEW ORLEANS — The floodwaters began to drain from this crippled city on Tuesday, and a handful of pumps came fitfully back into operation. But with growing concerns about gas leaks, fires, toxic water and diseases spread by mosquitoes, Mayor C. Ray Nagin said he wanted to ratchet up pressure on the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 remaining residents to leave.

Late Tuesday night the mayor authorized law enforcement officers and the U.S. military to force the evacuation of all residents who refuse to leave the city, saying he did not want the possibility of explosions and disease to increase a death toll that, according to Lt. David Benelli, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, could range from 2,000 to 20,000.

The receding waters were expected to reveal ever more bodies, to be identified by a team of forensic pathologists, medical examiners, coroners and morticians from local funeral homes. "We are going to take one deceased victim at a time and count one at a time," said Robert Johannessen , a spokesman for Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals. Of the process of identifying the bodies, he said: "It could take days, it could take years, it could take lifetimes."

The official death toll in Louisiana stood at 83, but state officials said the counting had only begun. In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour announced Tuesday evening that the state's "unofficial but credible estimate" of the death toll was now at 196 but that it was still rising. Barbour said that more than a quarter of the deaths were reported in the state's inland counties, not along the coast.

In Washington, President Bush promised an investigation into what went wrong in the response to Hurricane Katrina and dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to the Gulf Coast to cut through any bureaucratic obstacles slowing the recovery. The Senate and House also announced their own investigation into the government's response, with the lead Republican senator calling the response "woefully inadequate."

"If our system did such a poor job when there was no enemy, how would the federal, state and local governments have coped with a terrorist attack that provided no advance warning and that was intent on causing as much death and destruction as possible?" Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in Washington as the Senate Homeland Security Committee prepared for public hearings next week.

Officials said about 60 percent of New Orleans was still under water, but that was down from a peak of about 80 percent. Most of the gain came because the Army Corps of Engineers began opening gaps in the city's levees after the water level in surrounding bodies of water fell. The holes ensured that the levees — designed to keep water out of the below sea-level city — would not hold it in.

Four of the approximately 40 pumping stations in the New Orleans area were running Tuesday at least at partial capacity, officials said, but fitfully; a fifth giant one, at the 17th Street Canal, site of a major levee breach, started up but had to be stopped again because the pumps sucked in debris. Officials said it would take 24 days to pump the water from an eastern section of New Orleans and 80 days to clear the flooding from Chalmette, the nearby seat of St. Bernard Parish.

Evacuees continued to flood back into Jefferson Parish to check on their homes, overwhelming roads and bridges. Interstate 10, which connects Baton Rouge and New Orleans, was backed up for about five miles.

Louisiana officials offered a first glimpse at the environmental wreckage. The state secretary of environmental quality, Michael D. McDaniel, said that wildlife habitats along hundreds of miles of coastline had been destroyed and that the hurricane had exacerbated the slow coastal erosion that has already made the Gulf Coast more vulnerable to hurricanes and typhoons.

McDaniel said there was no alternative to pumping billions of gallons of brackish water back into Lake Pontchartrain, but he said it was too early to determine the harmfulness of the toxins and pollutants that were being slowly sifted out of New Orleans.

"I know there's been a lot of discussion about 'toxic soup' and 'witch's brew,"' he said. "I've seen no data to date that backs up that kind of statement. We do know and would expect that there are a lot of bacteriological contaminants in the water."

In New Orleans four major fires had broken out by Tuesday morning, gas leaks were numerous and mosquitoes had begun to fly after swarming deceased hurricane victims, Nagin said.

"I don't want make any statement that suggests I'm giving up on New Orleans," Nagin said at a news conference. "But it's a very volatile situation in the city right now. There's lots of oil on the water and there's gas leaks where it's bubbling up, and there's fire on top of that. If those two unite, God bless us. I don't know what's going to happen."

He said in an interview that a new evacuation order would eliminate exemptions that have allowed people to continue to stay in hotels and hospitals. Essentially, the city would be closed to everyone but law enforcement, military and public safety and health officials while it is drained of water and utilities are restored. The 82nd Airborne closed the Hyatt Hotel afternoon to civilians Tuesday afternoon.

Even though Louisiana state officials question his authority to issue the evacuation order, he said, "I don't care, I'm doing it. We have to get people out."

That meant people were once again bound to the city's Convention Center, where 25,000 people or more had huddled in desperate conditions for days. At St. Charles and Louisiana, about two dozen evacuees were patted down by U.S. Customs officials and placed on a bus for the Convention Center, where they were to be airlifted out of town. Told that some people were waiting as long as three hours at the Convention Center before being flown out, Nagin said that was a considerable improvement over the five days that it took some people to be evacuated last week.

"It's getting nasty and really smelly," Lucas Russ, 65, a retired school district employee, said as he prepared to board a bus with a bag of his belongings at St. Charles and Louisiana.

He said National Guardsmen told him that he had to leave and that he would receive no more food and water. National Guard officials denied this, and Nagin said that many evacuees were delirious, severely dehydrated, missing their medication and in need of immediate medical attention.

The mayor said the National Guard had asked him whether the handing out of sustenance provisions would encourage people to stay, but that his response was, "Do not harm anyone, do not allow anyone to starve, do not allow anyone to go without water and always treat everyone with respect."

That left officials with the question of how to strongly encourage holdouts to leave without outright forcing them unwillingly from their homes.

"I don't think we're ever going to do that," said Capt. Marlon Defillo, a spokesman for New Orleans police. "You're going to have people who are defiant not to leave. I don't think that's good PR."

President Bush intends to seek as much as $40 billion to cover the next phase of relief and recovery from Hurricane Katrina, congressional officials said Tuesday.

One week after the hurricane inflicted devastation of biblical proportions on the Gulf Coast, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the total tab for the federal government may top $150 billion. At the same time, senators in both parties said they suspect price gouging by oil companies in the storm's aftermath.

Some officials said they might ultimately be compelled to force people to leave. Brig. Gen. Michael P. Fleming, an Army National Guard commander said: "It's a tough decision. Between the mayor and governor, if they decide that's what to be done, the New Orleans Police Department, the State Police and National Guard would be part of it. We would help them implement it if we're called on to do so." With assistance from 4,000 national guard troops and an additional 4,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne, New Orleans was now secure and "locked down," with looting reduced to minimal levels, according to Warren J. Riley, the assistant superintendent of New Orleans police.

"I think we're turning the corner," Nagin said.

Still, parts of the city such as the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, along with Chalmette in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, remain inundated, and it could take up to two months to get electricity fully restored to the hardest hit areas, officials said. And police officers and firefighters have been inoculated against hepatitis, cholera, typhoid, tetanus and diphtheria.

The spine of St. Charles Avenue, with its broken canopy of oak trees and its streetcar tracks laced with downed power lines, provided a look at the successes and failures of New Orleans' recovery effort on Tuesday. Near St. Charles and Josephine, a fire consumed two city blocks, officials from the Oklahoma National Guard said.

At Lee Circle, Victor Mejia, 58, a janitor, stood in the shade and said he had no intention of leaving. "I live here," he said. "Where am I going to go?"

With attention turning to what had gone wrong, Nagin said he wanted an independent assessment of the missteps, saying he believed the matter was beyond politicians to solve. He blamed a lack of coordination, slow implementation of a rescue plan and what he called a "two-step" danced by federal and state officials to determine who was in charge.

He said he welcomed any attempt to criticize his own handling of the crisis. "My big question to anybody who's trying to shift the blame is, 'Where were you?"' Nagin said. "I was here. I know what happened. I walked among the people in the Superdome and in the Convention Center. I saw babies dying. I saw old people so tired, they said, 'Just let me lay down and die.' They can talk that, but bring it on. I'm ready for it."


Contributing: Michael Cooper, Anne E. Kornblut, Matthew L. Wald; Associated Press.