HURRICANE KATRINA Experts prepare to identify dead Mayor estimates toll at 10,000
Some residents are refusing to leave the homes where they have been trapped for a week.
ST. GABRIEL, La. -- The bodies have been tied to trees, floating in the toxic muck and decomposing in the blazing Louisiana sun.
Now, officials say the victims of Hurricane Katrina being collected this week from the flooded streets of New Orleans and other damaged areas will be handled with delicate care before they are claimed by loved ones.
As officials began the grim task of pulling bodies off the streets and out of homes, a team of forensic specialists at a makeshift morgue in St. Gabriel, a small town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, prepared to process the bodies.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin shared a ghastly estimate of Hurricane Katrina's human toll -- as many as 10,000 people dead, though he didn't cite the basis for that statement.
Biloxi, Miss., Mayor A.J. Holloway said he expected the death toll in his Mississippi city to exceed that of Hurricane Camille, which killed 200 people in 1969.
'It's horrible enough'
Speaking from inside the morgue Monday, Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state's emergency medical director who is serving as a commander for the operation, said some bodies are already in refrigeration trucks at the site and an untold number will be arriving in the coming days. He would not speculate on how many will be arriving.
"I don't want people being alarmed," Cataldie said. "I don't want inflated numbers. My God, it's horrible enough."'
Included in the death count will be those who died after the storm when they didn't receive adequate medical attention or drowned when the city flooded.
"A hurricane death is a death that would not have occurred had there not been a hurricane," Cataldie said. "It really is just that simple."
Hole in levee filled
Meanwhile, engineers repaired a ruptured levee Monday, and flood waters receded a bit as some suburban residents, carrying suitcases and heavy hearts, briefly returned to their homes and sifted through the sodden debris.
Louisiana officials said Monday afternoon that the repeated helicopter droppings of 30,000-pound sandbags into the football-field-wide break in the 17th Street canal leading to Lake Ponchartrain succeeded in stopping the water, and water was being pumped from the canal back into the lake.
Some parts of the city showed slipping flood waters as the repair neared completion, with some low-lying areas dropping more than a foot.
The good 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 damage caused by the same levee break, and to scoop up soaked wedding pictures, baby shoes and other cherished mementos.
"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 waterline 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.
Refusal to leave
As law enforcement officers and even bands of private individuals -- including actor Sean Penn -- launched a door-to-door boat and air search of New Orleans 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 Chief 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.
In the New Orleans area, many of those who briefly returned to suburban Jefferson Parish or stayed there throughout the ordeal reported a landscape dotted with bodies.
On Stella Street, Eric Breaux said he saw 15 corpses, most of them caught in barbed wire at the Metairie Country Club. "I don't want to see it again," he said. "I personally tied three dead bodies to street signs."
The Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team -- a large group of pathologists, DNA, dental and fingerprint specialists from around the country that is dispatched to handle mass casualties, including Sept. 11 -- will work around the clock to process and identify the bodies.
They are prepared to handle as many as 5,000, said Todd Ellis, head of the federal mortuary team.
"It won't be a traditional operation, where we would do autopsies and things that would take a vast amount of time," Ellis said.
"We want to try and do a good job on the post-mortem collection and inspection side so we can give these folks an opportunity to retrieve their loved ones at some future date."