NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Recovering the dead took priority over coaxing the living out of New Orleans on Friday as the Bush Administration replaced the head of its emergency management team in a political storm following Hurricane Katrina.
Turgid water polluted with bacteria, sewage and chemicals gradually receded in the near-empty city, once home to 450,000, leaving behind an equally dangerous muck.
City officials said the effort to rescue the stranded and the helpless that began after the Aug. 29 storm breached the city's levees had officially ended and efforts were now turned entirely to finding bodies. They said they were in no hurry to oust those who have refused to quit the city despite an evacuation order.
After days of criticism that President George W. Bush and his team had failed to respond quickly and adequately to the disaster, Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown was recalled to Washington. His role overseeing recovery efforts on the U.S. Gulf Coast was handed to Vice Admiral Thad Allen, chief of staff of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Four top Democratic senators, headed by Minority Leader Harry Reid, wrote to Bush after the announcement, again asking that Brown be fired.
"It is not enough to remove Mr. Brown from the disaster scene," they wrote. "The individual in charge of FEMA must inspire confidence and be able to coordinate hundreds of federal, state and local resources. Mr. Brown simply doesn't have the ability or the experience to oversee a coordinated federal response of this magnitude."
Some senior Republicans had also attacked Brown. Sen. Trent Lott, a Republican whose house in Pascagoula, Mississippi was destroyed by Katrina, said, "Michael Brown has been acting like a private, instead of a general."
Bush had publicly praised Brown last week for doing a "heck of a job." The last straw appeared to come Friday with published reports that Brown had padded his resume, although Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff -- Brown's boss -- dodged a question on those reports.
The official death count in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana stood at more than 300, and there was some hope that it would not rise into the thousands as had originally been feared. About a million people were displaced by the destruction wrought by the wind and water.
"There's some encouragement in the initial sweeps ... The numbers (of dead) so far are relatively minor as compared with the dire predictions of 10,000," said Col. Terry Ebbert, director of Homeland Security for New Orleans.
"The search for living individuals across the city has been conducted," Ebbert said. "What we are starting today ... is a recovery operation, a recovery operation to search by street, by grid, for the remains of any individuals who have passed away."
It appeared that those who had refused to leave the city -- at one time thought to number in the thousands -- were now more willing to depart. Provisions for allowing them to take pets along may have changed some minds.
But there were holdouts.
One of them, Jean Brad Lacy, left but came back. Sweeping up leaves and dried sewage from the pavement outside of a $200-a-month one-room home that had been knee-deep in water, he said he changed his mind when National Guard troops tried to put him on airplane.
"I can't stand no heights," he said. "I love this place, this is my home."
U.S. military pilots who have been flying over the city for the past nine days say it is clear the water is receding.
"Over in the western areas you don't see the standing water, you see the mud. It's every bit as nasty as the water and it's going to take a long time to clean up but at least the water is gone," said chief warrant officer Robert Osborn, a pilot with the U.S. 1st Cavalry.
"Today we're seeing cars that are able to drive around. The causeway is open. Folks are out trying to put plastic on their roofs. At nighttime we're seeing lights, power is coming on little by little."
Dozens of homeowners have managed to return to their damaged homes across the shut-down city and outlying parishes. Plastic blue tarps have been stretched over damaged roofs.
In some areas residents could be seen cleaning up damage but most neighborhoods were ghostly.
City officials said New Orleans had been "fully secured," with 14,000 troops on patrol to prevent looting. Workers planned to go house-to-house in search of bodies, many of which may be in poor, mainly black blue-collar neighborhoods where many did not have the means to evacuate before the storm hit.
Around New Orleans, evacuees were returning to St. Charles Parish, a suburban area west of the city and electricity was coming back online in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes to the north.
At St. Bernard Parish along the Gulf Coast, a Reuters reporter saw streets coated in a thick layer of oil and sludge from a refinery spill. Wild dogs ran around coated in oil, scavenging for garbage. A hazardous materials crew was trying to deal with the situation.
Reuters reporter Jason Webb, reporting from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain north of the city, said a two-mile stretch of high-priced waterfront homes built on jetties was almost totally destroyed.
The U.S. postal service meanwhile resumed limited mail service in the region but officials said it had lost contact with hundreds of its employees in the three states.
"We have more than 6,000 employees in the affected areas ... and out of that number we have heard from maybe a little more than half of them, so we still have hundreds and hundreds of postal employees we don't know where they are," postal spokesman Dave Lewin told reporters in Baton Rouge.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said engineers were trying to remap shipping lanes, seeing what debris needed to be removed from the ocean floor, so that ports could reopen.
The port of New Orleans, the fifth largest in the nation, has been shut since Aug. 27. Corn, wheat and other grain is piling up along the Mississippi while shipments of steel from Japan and Russia and rubber from Indonesia and Thailand have been turned away.
Did you find this article insightful?