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KATRINA'S AFTERMATH

Official Death Toll Starts to Mount

Thousands of Bodies Are Expected in a Recovery Process That May Last Months

September 05, 2005|Scott Gold, Richard A. Serrano and Peter H. King | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — The nation's senior health official bluntly predicted Sunday that Hurricane Katrina's death toll would rise into the thousands as Louisiana medical authorities tallied the first sobering evidence -- 59 dead in makeshift morgues and another 100 corpses lined on docks east of the flood-swept city.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt became the first senior Bush administration official to confirm publicly that arriving teams of medical examiners expected to spend months collecting bodies.

Leavitt said it was "evident" that the storm killed thousands.

As a team of senior administration officials toured the battered Gulf Coast in advance of President Bush's return to the region today, the federal government came under renewed criticism. Democrats and agitated Louisiana officials said the government had failed to prepare for the disaster and did not provide immediate help to tens of thousands of victims.

"We have been abandoned by our own country," said Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana and a Democrat. He broke down on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday recounting the drowning death of the mother of one of his aides.

Trying to deflect the criticism by insisting that they were too caught up in the unfolding crisis to respond, federal officials tightened their grip on the movements and mission of National Guard and active-duty troops along the Gulf Coast. The force was expected to total more than 16,000 troops by today.

Bush dispatched several Cabinet officials to the region to help assess the damage and to provide assistance, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"Homeland Security has the baton," Rumsfeld said, referring to Chertoff's role in coordinating troops for the relief effort.

While active-duty troops concentrate on relief operations, National Guard troops have moved to assume control of security in New Orleans, replacing exhausted police.

Almost all of the thousands of evacuees who had huddled in squalor inside the Louisiana Superdome and the city's convention center were gone from the heart of the city, shipped out by Guard troops who were enforcing strict security in the area.

About 250,000 evacuees are being housed in shelters, hotels and homes in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry on Sunday ordered emergency officials to airlift some of them to states that had offered to help. Perry said relief centers around the state were running out of room.

"There are shelters set up in other states that are sitting empty while thousands arrive in Texas by the day, if not the hour," Perry said.

Despite pacifying downtown New Orleans, arriving Guard units had not exerted control over the city's outlying, waterlogged neighborhoods. Authorities shot and killed as many as eight suspected looters in separate incidents Sunday, officials said.

In one case, seven men fired on a sheriff's deputy who had been sent to New Orleans from another part of Louisiana. The deputy was hauling a boat to a staging area for a rescue mission. Officers from the New Orleans Police Department shot at the seven men, killing two.

"The security forces won," Mayor C. Ray Nagin said. "We're going to make this city safe. Anybody out there who has any ideas of doing anything but evacuating -- there will be serious consequences."

At least 200 officers on the 1,500-member New Orleans police force have quit, city officials said, and many of those who are still on patrol are growing weary. Nagin said he would try to rotate police officers out of New Orleans starting today.

About 300 officers would remain in the city and would be rotated out at some point. Nagin said he would try to send the officers to Atlanta and Las Vegas in an attempt to revive morale. He said the respites would last from three to five days.

"They have held this city together," Nagin said.

New Orleans requires police to live inside the city limits, which means many of the officers lost relatives, spouses, children and their homes in the storm. Two officers have committed suicide.

"I am not going to have one more officer commit suicide," Nagin said.

The city had 80 emergency dispatchers before the storm and now has 18. The mayor said the dispatchers had burned out after days of calls from desperate and desolate residents.

"They just couldn't take it anymore," Nagin said.

Nagin's anger grew over what he described as the slow pace of federal relief efforts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is under fire for a halting response in Katrina's immediate aftermath, and FEMA director Michael D. Brown has been criticized by Louisiana officials as being out of touch.

Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, charged Sunday that FEMA officials had "cut all of our emergency lines" before they were reconnected by local sheriffs.

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