The grisly cleanup begins

As New Orleans turns its attention to counting the dead, no one knows how many they'll find. But the bodies are everywhere.

Published September 4, 2005 4:33PM (EDT)

With the last weary refugees rescued from the Superdome and convention center, New Orleans turned its attention Sunday to gathering up and counting the dead across a ghastly landscape awash in perhaps thousands of corpses.

No one knows how many people were killed by Hurricane Katrina and how many more succumbed waiting to be rescued. But the bodies are everywhere: hidden in attics, floating in the ruined city, crumpled in wheelchairs, abandoned on highways.

"I think it's evident it's in the thousands," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Sunday on CNN, echoing predictions by city and state officials last week about the death toll.

Craig Vanderwagen, rear admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service, said one morgue alone, at a St. Gabriel prison, expected 1,000 to 2,000 bodies.

"We need to prepare the country for what's coming," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on "Fox News Sunday." "We are going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, got caught by the flood. ... It is going to be about as ugly of a scene as I think you can imagine."

Chertoff said rescuers searching house to house have encountered a significant number of people who have said they don't want to evacuate.

"That is not a reasonable alternative," he said. "We are not going to be able to have people sitting in houses in the city of New Orleans for weeks and months while we de-water and clean this city. ... The flooded places, when they're de-watered, are not going to be sanitary."

In addition to civilian deaths, New Orleans emergency service agencies have had to deal with some suicides among their ranks, Mayor Ray Nagin said.

"I've got some firefighters and police officers that have been pretty much traumatized," he said. "And we've already had a couple of suicides so I am cycling them out as we speak, but we have a problem. I can get them to Baton Rouge, but once I get them to Baton Rouge there's no hospitals. They need physical and psychological evaluations."

Sunday morning, a woman's body remained lying at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street -- a business area in the lower Garden District with antique shops on the edge of blighted housing. The body had been there since at least Wednesday.

As days passed, people covered her with blankets or plastic.

By Sunday, a short wall of bricks had been built around her body, holding down a plastic tarpaulin. On it, someone had spray-painted a cross and the words, "Here lies Vera. God help us."

Outside the convention center Sunday, where walk-up stragglers and those picked up by rescuers were being evacuated, Navy Lt. Andy Steczo of Bossier City, La., was dressing a gash on 56-year-old Pedro Martinez' ankle and cuts on his knuckle and forearm.

Martinez said he was injured while helping people onto rescue boats. "I don't have any medication and it hurts. I'm glad to get out of here," he said.

Steczo, who came with other personnel from the Jacksonville Naval Hospital, was among medics checking evacuees before they leave. Bullet wounds, knife wounds, infections, dehydration and chronic problems such as diabetes were among the problems he'd dealt with.

"We're cleaning them up the best we can and then shipping them out," Steczo said.

Some victims scavenged what they could find among the detritus left behind.

John Henry picked up a pair of hiking shoes, a pair of tennis shoes that looked unworn, packs of cigarettes and a variety of spirits, including bottles of cognac and Jack Daniels. "We're looting the people who were looting," he said, cackling. "I love it. I have to admit it."

He also picked up a T-shirt showing the Three Stooges. "Larry, Curley and Moe. I'm keeping this one. It stinks, though," he said.

The last 300 refugees at the Superdome were evacuated Saturday evening, eliciting cheers from members of the Texas National Guard who had been standing watch over the facility for nearly a week as some 20,000 hurricane survivors waited for rescue.

On Sunday, utilities planned to send trucks into the city to assess storm damage for the first time since Katrina struck. Morgan Stewart, a spokesman for electricity provider Entergy Corp., said the National Guard would escort the company's vehicles.

The exact number of dead won't be known for some time. Survivors were still being plucked from roofs and shattered highways across the city. President Bush ordered more than 7,000 active duty forces to the Gulf Coast on Saturday.

The overwhelming majority of those stranded in the post-Katrina chaos were those without the resources to escape.

Tens of thousands of people had been evacuated from the city, seeking safety in Texas, Tennessee and many other states.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry warned Saturday that his enormous state was running out of room, with more than 220,000 hurricane refugees camped out there and more coming. Emergency workers at the Astrodome were told to expect 10,000 new arrivals daily for the next three days.

In Washington, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta announced that more than 10,000 people had been flown out of New Orleans in what he called the largest airlift in history on U.S. soil. He said the flights would continue as long as needed.

Thousands of people remained at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where officials turned a Delta Blue terminal into a triage unit. Officials said 3,000 to 5,000 people had been treated at the unit, but fewer than 200 remain. Others throughout the airport awaited transport out of the city.

Airport director Roy Williams said about 30 people had died, some of them elderly and ill. The bodies were being kept in refrigerated trucks as a temporary morgue.

By Allen G. Breed

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