KATRINA'S AFTERMATH Next grim task: body counts
Two police officers committed suicide, and one official broke down on television.
NEW ORLEANS -- On the seventh day, authorities issued dire predictions of the human cost of Hurricane Katrina as New Orleans turned much of its attention to gathering up and counting the dead across a ghastly landscape awash in perhaps thousands of bodies.
"We need to prepare the country for what's coming," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday. "We are going to uncover people who died hiding in the houses, maybe got caught in floods. It is going to be as ugly a scene as you can imagine."
Chertoff's comments and others by federal officials echoed the foreboding prophecies of state and city officials and seemed designed to condition Americans for death counts that could reach startling proportions. President Bush on Sunday called Katrina a "tidal wave of disaster."
One burst of ugliness exploded in New Orleans on Sunday. During a confrontation, 14 contractors on their way to help plug the breach in the 17th Street Canal were traveling across the Danziger Bridge under police escort when they came under fire, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Police shot at eight people carrying guns, killing five or six, Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley said. None of the contractors was injured, authorities said.
Meanwhile, a civilian helicopter crashed Sunday evening near the bridge. The two people on board escaped with only cuts and scrapes, according to Mark Smith of the state office of emergency preparedness.
Too much for some officers
In addition to the lawlessness, civilian deaths and uncertainty about their families, New Orleans police have had to deal with suicides in their ranks. Two officers took their lives, including the department spokesman, Paul Accardo, who died Saturday, according to Riley. Both shot themselves in the head, he said.
"I've got some firefighters and police officers that have been pretty much traumatized," Mayor Ray Nagin said. "And we've already had a couple of suicides, so I am cycling them out as we speak. ... They need physical and psychological evaluations."
The strain was apparent in other ways. Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, dropped his head and cried on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home, and every day she called him and said, 'Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?' And he said, 'And yeah, Momma, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday' -- and she drowned Friday night. She drowned on Friday night," Broussard said.
"Nobody's coming to get her, nobody's coming to get her. The secretary's promise, everybody's promise. They've had press conferences -- I'm sick of the press conferences. For God's sakes, shut up and send us somebody."
Louisiana officials released their first official death toll -- 59 -- but said they already knew of 100 other victims in the state, and they expected the number to rise precipitously as attention turned from searching for survivors to recovering the dead.
"We were working for the living, and now we are working for the dead and the living," said Dr. Louis Cataldie, a state medical official in Louisiana. "It's pretty tough, pulling out dead bodies."
In St. Gabriel, La., northwest of New Orleans, authorities guarded a 125,000-square-foot warehouse transformed into a morgue capable of holding more than 1,000 bodies. Residents said refrigerated and other trucks had been stopping there for days, though no one knew if any bodies had been delivered.
"I wasn't able to help the living," said St. Gabriel Mayor George Grace, "so I was not at all upset about having a suitable place to house the dead."
A few hopeful signs
In the New Orleans area, here and there, down this blocked street and around that tattered corner, portions of the city blinked back to life. Some people emerged from their homes for the first time in almost a week; some traffic lights even burst into green, yellow and red.
"Today, Sunday -- right now -- this is the first time I've come out," said Deborah Phelps, 56, of the Bywater section, near the French Quarter.
And so, also on the seventh day, clergy and their flocks prayed for the souls of the dead -- and for deliverance of the living.
"God didn't bring this destruction on us," Vince Munoz of Biloxi, Miss., told 40 people at what little was left of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Biloxi, where congregants worshipped in an outdoor courtyard under the speckled shade of gnarled oak trees.
"It's the nature of the planet since the Garden of Eden," he said. "God is using this to help us reach out to each other."
Throughout the region, people did reach out to each other, often with sad results.
Rescue teams along the upper Gulf Coast struggled to gain access to wrecked inland communities, and when they did reach them, they often discovered bodies.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said 12 fatalities were found in Laurel, Miss., almost 100 miles inland.
Hundreds of thousands of people already have been evacuated, seeking safety in Texas, Tennessee and other states. The first group of refugees who will take shelter in Arizona arrived Sunday in Phoenix.
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