NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The Bush administration moved to quell a political storm on Friday by replacing the embattled head of emergency operations along the U.S. Gulf Coast and rescue workers in New Orleans ended recovery efforts to focus on collecting bodies left by Hurricane Katrina.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced he was recalling Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown to Washington and appointing Vice Admiral Thad Allen, chief of staff of the U.S. Coast Guard, to take charge of recovery operations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
"We have to have seamless interaction with military forces," Chertoff told a news conference in Baton Rouge. "Mike Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge. I appreciate his work, as does everybody here."
Brown had been the target of furious bipartisan criticism for the government's slow initial response to the hurricane and some of both political parties have called for his firing. Chertoff said he was now being asked to coordinate the response to other possible disasters.
Democrats criticized the decision to retain him as head of FEMA but President George W. Bush is well known for his loyalty to long-time political friends.
Four top Democratic senators, headed by Minority Leader Harry Reid, wrote to Bush after the announcement, again asking for Brown's dismissal.
"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 Chertoff refused to acknowledge a question on these reports.
Bush is to make his third post-hurricane visit to the Gulf Coast on Sunday and vice president Dick Cheney is to make a second trip to the region on Saturday.
HOPE OF FEWER DEAD
In New Orleans, hopes rose that the number of dead might not be as high as initially predicted. Rescuers were only now beginning a methodical house-by-house search of the city for victims' bodies.
Thousands had been feared trapped in the poor, mainly black blue-collar neighborhoods, where many did not have the means to evacuate ahead of the Aug. 29 storm, when most better-off residents fled.
"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," Col. Terry Ebbert, director of Homeland Security for the city of New Orleans said at a news conference with other city officials.
Flood waters were receding and city officials said New Orleans was now "fully secured," with 14,000 troops on patrol to prevent looting. Some neighboring areas were showing signs of recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu said that contrary to earlier reports nobody was being forcibly removed from the city. Thousands of people were still believed to be holding out, some in neighborhoods still awash in a fetid soup of debris, bacteria, decomposed bodies, chemicals and oil, with no electricity and no running water.
"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."
More than 300 were confirmed dead in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, including 118 in Louisiana. Many residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have dispersed across the country with nearly 250,000 housed in shelters.
Around New Orleans, evacuees were returning to St. Charles Parish, a suburban area west of the city. 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 were running 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.
"It just looks like a nuclear bomb hit," said Ted Modica, 49, as he picked through the ruins of his $295,000 home for personal items that might have survived the onslaught. The two-story house once stood 13 feet (4 metres) above the water.
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.
Bush, facing his biggest crisis since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, vowed to overcome the disaster.
"America is a strong and resilient nation. Our people have the spirit, the resources and the determination to overcome any challenge," he said at a State Department ceremony before Brown was called back to Washington.
Even as he spoke, Bush faced renewed criticism for packing FEMA with political cronies and saw his approval rating fall to 40 percent, down four points since July to the lowest point the Pew Research Center has recorded.
The Washington Post reported that five of the top eight FEMA officials had little experience in handling disasters and owed their jobs to their Republican political ties to Bush.
Brown is a friend of former Bush campaign director Joe Allbaugh, the previous FEMA head who was a major Bush fund-raiser. Last week, as criticism of his response to the disaster swelled, Bush gave him a public vote of confidence, saying, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
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