Death Toll from Katrina Remains Unknown
LIANE HANSEN, host:
In New Orleans, engineers this weekend moved up their estimate of when they would finish pumping floodwaters from the city streets. They now hope to complete the job in mid-October. As the engineers work to dry out New Orleans, police officers and firefighters are going from house to house to look for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Officials have reduced their original prediction that as many as 10,000 people died in the city. But still, no one can say for sure because the enormous and grim task of searching for and removing bodies has barely begun. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from New Orleans.
MARTIN KASTE reporting:
In neighborhoods such as Bywater in the western Ninth Ward, the floodwaters have dropped enough that Police Officer Brian French is once again able to patrol by car. And he's accompanied by a couple of SUVs full of border patrol agents from Texas, a sign of the variety of uniformed responders who've now flocked to the city. Some of the houses in the neighborhood have been spray-painted by the rescuers who came through here before in boats, and now Officer French deciphers the painted code.
Officer BRIAN FRENCH (Louisiana): They ma--transported one, that they were able to save one, and there's a certain mark--there's a body left there.
KASTE: Now that whole neighborhoods are drying out, the police are beginning to revisit the places where bodies were left behind during the chaotic days after the storm. Some of the bodies' locations are fairly obvious, especially in downtown areas that were never flooded.
(Soundbite of vehicle)
KASTE: One notorious case was the bloated corpse curled up against a seawall near the French Quarter. The location of this body was also marked by spray paint, a sign on the seawall above it reading, `RIP,' along with an insult for Katrina. Mike Brown is a bulldozer operator hired to clean up this neighborhood.
Mr. MIKE BROWN (Bulldozer Operator): When we got ready to start the garbage pile, there was some trash here. And as I was pushing to make the pile, I almost run him over, and I seen him, so we told everybody to watch it. We called the police, so they said, `Just don't worry about it. They'll get to him sooner or later.'
KASTE: Not wanting to bury the body under garbage, Brown went in search of the media camped out nearby. After a day or two of visits by news crews, a 15-car official government convoy finally roars in to collect the body. The removal convoy includes three Georgia State Patrol cars, two out-of-state ambulances and several unmarked white vans. Several people in blue hospital scrubs surround the corpse and hesitate while National Guardsmen move in to block the scene. Watching from his bulldozer, Brown shakes his head at the magnitude of the response.
Mr. BROWN: Fifteen vehicles, one dead guy. Now what we could do is have maybe one vehicle to pick up one dead guy and then them other 15 could go pick up 15 other people.
KASTE: Local and federal authorities have been stung by photos and news accounts of corpses left to rot for days in the unflooded parts of town, some of them in walking distance of the command center. Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for New Orleans, rejects criticism of the delay in collecting the corpses.
Mr. TERRY EBBERT (Homeland Security Director, New Orleans): We were concentrating totally on getting people who survived the storm out of the storm. Now we're going back with a grid, entering into those spaces, which is a much more onerous task, searching from top down as the water recedes.
KASTE: And Ebbert has made it clear that the recovery effort, run by the federal government, should no longer be a subject for cameras.
Mr. EBBERT: You can imagine the issue of sitting in Houston and watching somebody removed from your parents' home. We don't think that's proper.
KASTE: As the floodwaters recede and more bodies appear, they are now being put under guard, usually two soldiers who are assigned to remain at the spot until the caravan arrives, however long that may take.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.
HANSEN: Another hurricane, this one named Ophelia, is gaining strength off the coast of the Carolinas. About 200 miles from land, Ophelia has sustained winds of 85 miles per hour, making it a Category 1 storm. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami predict that Ophelia will remain stable today and turn toward the Eastern seaboard tomorrow, possibly making landfall along the South Carolina and North Carolina coast on Tuesday.
It's 18 minutes past the hour.