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Monday, September 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Levee fixed as New Orleans mayor makes direst death prediction yet

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — A week after Hurricane Katrina swept through, engineers plugged the levee break that had swamped much of the city and floodwaters began to recede, but along with the good news came the mayor's direst prediction yet: as many as 10,000 dead.

Crews had put up metal sheets and dropped 3,000-pound sandbags from helicopters onto the 17th Street canal leading to Lake Pontchartrain to plug the 200-foot-wide gap, and water was being pumped from the canal back into the lake.

State officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say once the canal level is drawn down two feet, Pumping Station No. 6 can begin pumping water out of the bowl-shaped city.

Some parts of the city already showed slipping floodwaters as the repair neared completion, with the low-lying Ninth Ward dropping more than a foot. In downtown New Orleans, some streets were merely wet rather than swamped.

"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.

The 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 their flooded homes, and to scoop up soaked wedding pictures 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 things 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."

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

As law enforcement officers and even bands of civilians — including actor Sean Penn — launched door-to-door searches 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 Superintendent 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.

With almost a third of New Orleans' police force 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.

Between 400 to 500 officers on New Orleans' 1600-member force were unaccounted for. Some lost their homes. Some were looking for families. "Some simply left because they said they could not deal with the catastrophe," Riley said. Officers were being cycled off duty and given five-day vacations in Las Vegas and Atlanta, where they also would receive counseling.

At a news conference in Baton Rouge, police Superintendent Eddie Compass denied that officers deserted in droves, acknowledging some officers abandoned their jobs but saying he didn't know how many.

Two police officers killed themselves. Another was shot in the head. Compass said 150 had to be rescued from eight feet of water and others had gotten infections from walking through the murky soup of chemicals and pollutants in flooded areas.

"No police department in the history of the world was asked to do what we were asked," Compass said with a mix of anger and pride.

The leader of troops patrolling New Orleans declared the city 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, which 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.

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

At a stop in Baton Rouge, Bush said all levels of the government were doing their best, and he pledged: "So long as any life is in danger, we've got work to do."

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.

Late Monday, Blanco denied there was tension with Bush.

"We'd like to stop the voices out there trying to create a divide. There is no divide," she said. "Every leader in this nation wants to see this problem solved."

In Texas, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency for that state, saying it would speed up federal assistance to help almost 240,000 storm evacuees — the most of any state.

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. Water rippled up the knobs at front doors and completely covered Mercedes-Benzes 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's so devastating, that goddamned levee breaking," said Bobby Patrick, who is now staying 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.

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 every major street corner, 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."

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AP reporters Melinda Deslatte and Robert Tanner contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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