Workers Focus on Recovering Bodies

Federal officials are winding down some of the search and rescue operations in New Orleans as they shift the focus to recovering bodies. In three towns outside New Orleans, residents are being allowed to return to their homes.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

On the Gulf Coast today, there are some more signs of communities taking steps toward normalcy. There are also investigations under way, and more details about the disaster are emerging. Just ahead in this segment of the program, a conversation with Louisiana's attorney general and a report on job seekers in Mississippi. But we begin with New Orleans. Federal officials on the scene have begun to scale back the military's presence, saying they'll move two Navy ships from the region. And three suburbs officially invited their residents to return home. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

The situation in New Orleans has turned a corner. As Mayor Ray Nagin put it yesterday, the city is `out of a nuclear crisis mode and into a normal day-to-day crisis mode.' Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, FEMA's point man in southern Louisiana, says the time has come to start moving out some of the equipment and manpower that were moved into New Orleans after the storm.

Vice Admiral THAD ALLEN (US Coast Guard): There are some DOD assets that are employed in the response part of this operation that are no longer needed, and the Department of Defense is going to redeploy those assets.

KASTE: Rescuers are no longer under the same sense of urgency, and federal authorities are now focused on protecting private property and the ongoing task of recovering bodies from the receding floodwaters. Vice Admiral Allen.

Vice Adm. ALLEN: We express our deepest sympathy to the families that have lost loved ones as a result of this storm, and we want to ensure everybody that we are exercising the strictest protocols in the process that we use to take the remains that are discovered and how they are handled.

KASTE: In the city's western suburbs, things are moving ahead even faster. For the past few days, Jefferson Parish has been trying to jump start its economy, clearing streets and inviting businesses to bring in their employees. The towns of Gretna, Westwego and Jean Lafitte suffered minimal or no flooding, though the winds took a severe toll on power lines and roofs. Now community leaders say it's time for families to start moving in. Ronnie Harris is the mayor of Gretna.

Mayor RONNIE HARRIS (Gretna, Louisiana): We are pleased to be the first to be open in Jefferson Parish. Sure, it's a happy day, but it's not a joyful day, not yet. We have a lot of work to do.

KASTE: Authorities in the reopened suburbs say they'll enforce a strict nighttime curfew, and people will have to bring in their groceries from the outside. In Jean Lafitte, food will be distributed from City Hall. The school district for the western suburbs plans to start classes in early October, even though only about half the district's schools are usable right now.

Downtown New Orleans may also reopen soon. Mayor Nagin says he'll consider reopening the central business district and maybe the French Quarter as soon as next week if environmental tests show that the air and water are safe enough. If so, the downtown may end up as a lonely island of life surrounded by a ghost town. Most of New Orleans' residential neighborhoods were flooded, and they'll take much longer to reopen. The city certainly won't be very welcoming to families for the foreseeable future. The New Orleans school system said today that it's run out of money and can no longer pay the teachers who've been scattered around the country, along with the children, most of whom are now enrolling in new schools far from home. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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