FEMA Combs New Orleans for Bodies
LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
In New Orleans today, rescue and recovery workers are stepping up their search for bodies of victims of Hurricane Katrina. The death toll in Louisiana from Katrina stands at more than 150. Officials expect that number to rise significantly, although they have backed off from an earlier grim estimate that as many as 10,000 died. In Mississippi, Katrina's death toll is 211, and overall, by a preliminary count, the storm has been blamed for about 400 lives. NPR's John Ydstie is on the line from New Orleans.
John, tell us what you know at this point about the search for bodies in New Orleans.
JOHN YDSTIE reporting:
Well, that's certainly the focus now. FEMA DMORT teams--Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams--are combing the city with police and units of the 82nd Airborne. As one FEMA spokesman said, `They're going neighborhood by neighborhood, house by house, room by room, searching for bodies.' And they mark the houses where the bodies are, the searchers do, and then the DMORT teams, experts at collecting these dead bodies, come in and collect the remains. They're then taken by refrigerated trucks to a temporary morgue in the tiny town of St. Gabriel, Louisiana, just below Baton Rouge along the river, where they're decontaminated, examined and information is collected to try to identify each body. There is some hope that the count won't be as high as the 10,000 that was predicted, but we've got a long way to go.
HANSEN: What progress is being made to pump water out of the city?
YDSTIE: Well, mostly they are making progress. The Corps of Engineers now says it'll take about a month to dry out New Orleans, not the 80 days they originally suggested it might take. The water is receding around the Superdome. There still is five, six feet of water in much of the Lower Ninth Ward, but the water isn't going down everywhere. Our colleague, Jeff Brady, discovered yesterday that water is rising in the part of the city adjacent to Jefferson Parish. Jefferson Parish is apparently pumping water into a canal that's got a breach on the New Orleans side, and as the canal fills up, the water is running over into New Orleans. So we'll see what happens today, whether that gets resolved or turns into a big fight.
HANSEN: John, what's it like in the city?
YDSTIE: Well, you know, there's not as much activity as there has been. I was out of the city for a couple of days and I'm back this morning, and there aren't the long lines of volunteer search-and-rescue teams, the boats, the pickup trucks, etc., that were out combing the city. It's emptied out a little bit in that regard here, and a lot of the Guardsmen have dispersed as well, I think, into some of the outer parishes. There's more cleanup going on especially around the Convention Center, where there's--25,000 waited to be rescued. Most of the mess is now gone there. There's some grid power back, very little, but some grid power back in downtown. So there are a few lights on and there's some water pressure in parts of the city as well, but the water is--you're not advised to drink it.
HANSEN: Is there an image that sticks in your mind that--you know, in your travels around southern Louisiana these past few days?
YDSTIE: Well, there are a couple, Liane. I'm in New Orleans this morning and every now and then I pause and try to comprehend the enormity of this disaster. I mean, here we are in an American city that has essentially emptied out and half of it is still underwater. We were walking last night through the dark streets to try to get a hot meal, and it was eerie because here are streets that are normally filled with revelers and there was nobody around. And the other thing that sort of makes an impression on me is the sight of the morgue. It's this tiny town, St. Gabriel, south of Baton Rouge, and it is a town that's seen a lot of tragedy, but the mayor there, whose name is Mayor Grace, says, `We're about giving people hope.' And he says he hopes the town can do that for the families, help bring this to closure for them.
HANSEN: NPR's John Ydstie in New Orleans, Louisiana. John, thanks a lot.
YDSTIE: You're welcome, Liane.
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