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Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Authorities in New Orleans find far fewer bodies than expected

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS – Alarming predictions of as many as 10,000 dead in New Orleans may have been greatly exaggerated, with authorities saying Friday that the first street-by-street sweep of the swamped city revealed far fewer corpses than feared.

"Some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred," said Col. Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security chief.

He declined to give a revised estimate. But he added: "Numbers so far are relatively minor as compared to the dire projections of 10,000."

The encouraging news came as workers repairing New Orlean's system of levees and water pumps projected Friday that it will take a month to dry out the city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Authorities officially shifted most of their attention to counting and removing the dead after spending days cajoling, persuading and all but strong-arming the living into leaving the city because of the danger of fires and disease from the fetid floodwaters.

Ever since the hurricane struck Aug. 29, residents, rescuers and cadaver-sniffing dogs have found bodies floating in the waters, trapped in attics or deft lying on broken highways. Some were dropped off at hospital doorsteps or left slumped in wheelchairs out in the open.

Mayor Ray Nagin suggested last weekend that "it wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000" dead, and authorities ordered 25,000 body bags. But soldiers who had been brought in over the past few days to help in the search were not seeing that kind of toll.

"There's nothing at all in the magnitude we anticipated," said Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

Ebbert said the search for the dead will be done systematically, block-by-block, with dignity and with no news media allowed to follow along. "You can imagine sitting in Houston and watching somebody removed from your parents' property. We don't think that's proper," he said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said most of the city could be drained by Oct. 2, but some of the eastern areas of New Orleans and the hard-hit community of Chalmette, across the Mississippi River, could be under water until Oct. 8. Plaquemines Parish, which suffered a storm surge from the coast, could take another 10 days to drain.

The Corps had previously said it could take up to 80 days to drain the city. Friday marked the first time engineers offered detailed time tables.

The effort to get water out of the city, which had been 80 percent covered following the storm and levee breaches, was helped by dry weather and gaps blown in the levees to allow floodwaters to drain out.

Over the past few days, police and soldiers trying to rescue the living marked houses where corpses were found, or noted their location with global positioning devices, so that the bodies could be collected later.

A dozen boats awaiting calls to retrieve bodies were lined up early Friday on an interstate ramp that was being used as a makeshift boat launch. Soldiers also hauled the last of the bodies out of the convention center, which became an increasingly violent and chaotic place before the evacuees were finally removed a week ago.

State officials could not provide an exact count of the dead recovered so far. Corpses from New Orleans were taken to a morgue in nearby St. Gabriel, where medical examiners worked to identify the remains.

Still, thousands of stubborn holdouts were believed to staying put in the city, and authorities continued trying to clear them out.

Police fearing deadly confrontations with jittery residents enforced a new order that bars homeowners from owning guns. That order apparently does not apply to the hundreds of M-16-toting private security guards hired to protect businesses and wealthy property owners.

But there were still no reports of anyone being taken out by force under a three-day-old order from the mayor, and there were growing indications that that was little more than an empty threat.

"We're trying our best to persuasively negotiate and we are not using force at this time — I cannot speak to the future," said city attorney Sherry Landry. "If we find it necessary we will do so. ... We would like to make this a last resort."

In a shift, the military began providing cages to homeowners to allow them to evacuate with their pets. "We got the capacity, and it seemed like the right thing to do," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore.

Across the city, there were signs of hope.

The floodwaters continued to recede, with about three dozen of the 174 pumps in the area working and an additional 17 portable pumps in place. While 350,000 people in the New Orleans area were still without electricity, utilities said some power has been restored to the central business district.

Authorities said the airport will reopen to commercial flights Sept. 19. Firefighters were heartened to learn that water pressure has begun to return, though the water is still not safe to drink.

Residents of St. Tammany Parish, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, were allowed to return to their homes to see the damage and clean up. The Postal Service opened 37 offices in several parishes south of the city, though deliveries were still impossible along flooded streets.

The developments in New Orleans came against an increasingly stormy backdrop in Washington, where Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown was relieved of his command of the onsite relief efforts amid increasing criticism over the sluggishness of the agency's response and questions over his background.

Asked if he was being made a scapegoat, Brown told The Associated Press: "By the press, yes. By the president, No."

Meanwhile, scores of Louisiana National Guardsmen began arriving home from Iraq. About 800 members of Louisiana's 256th Brigade Combat Team volunteered to join the relief effort, while about 1,500 will return to their civilian jobs, if any of those positions are left.

For Spc. Nathan Faust of Chalmette in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, it is a total loss. His family home is flooded to the peak of the roof.

"All my stuff, all my family, everyone's homeless," said Faust, 23. "I want to move out of the city and start over someplace else. I can't put my life on hold for two years and wait for the city to get back on its feet."

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Associated Press writers Don Babwin, Melinda DeSlatte, Doug Simpson and Jim Krane contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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