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New Orleans Gathers Dead

As authorities struggled to keep order across this ruined city, the continuing strain from Hurricane Katrina (search) erupted when gunmen opened fire on a group of contractors and the state's largest newspaper lashed out at the federal government's response.

Despite the tensions, rescues of stranded residents continued Sunday as Coast Guard (search) helicopters picked up refugees and the flood waters began to recede, leaving the grisly task of collecting bodies.

Federal officials urged those still left in New Orleans to leave for their own safety. Large-scale evacuations were completed at the Superdome (search) and Convention Center.

The death toll across the Gulf Coast was not known. But bodies were everywhere: floating in canals, slumped in wheelchairs, abandoned on highways and medians and hidden in attics.

"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.

The Times-Picayune, in an open letter to President Bush, called for the firing of every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying they failed to rescue thousands of citizens stranded by Katrina.

"We're angry, Mr. President, and we'll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry," the editorial said. "Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That's to the government's shame."

"Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially," the letter said. "No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced."

One bright spot to the crisis was to the west, where neighboring Jefferson Parish was to allow residents back in Monday — as long as they show a valid ID proving residency, bring food, have a full tank of gas and don't drink the water.

Parish President Aaron Broussard warned the 460,000 residents that they would find all traffic signals destroyed, no open stores and a dusk-to-dawn curfew. He recommended that women not come alone.

Violence boiled over when 14 contractors on their way to help plug the breech in the 17th Street Canal came under fire as they traveled across a bridge under police escort, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. Police shot at eight people carrying guns, killing five or six, Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley said. None of the contractors was injured, authorities said.

Besides the lawlessness, civilian deaths and uncertainty about their families, New Orleans' police have had to deal with suicides in their ranks. Two officers took their lives, including the department spokesman, Paul Accardo, who died Saturday, according to Riley. Both shot themselves in the head, he said.

"I've got some firefighters and police officers that have been pretty much traumatized," Mayor Ray Nagin said. "And we've already had a couple of suicides, so I am cycling them out as we speak. ... They need physical and psychological evaluations."

At two of the city's damaged levees, engineers continued making repairs that would allow pumps to begin draining the floodwaters. "The water is receding now. We just have a long ways to go," Mike Rogers, a disaster relief coordinator with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Sunday.

Hundreds of thousands of people already have been evacuated, seeking safety in Texas, Tennessee and other states. With more than 230,000 already in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry ordered emergency officials to begin preparations to airlift some of them to other states that have offered help.

What will happen to the refugees in the long term was not known.

Amid the tragedy, about two dozen people gathered in the French Quarter for the Decadence Parade (search), an annual Labor Day gay celebration. Matt Menold, 23, a street musician wearing a sombrero and a guitar slung over his back, said: "It's New Orleans, man. We're going to celebrate."

In New Orleans' Garden District, a woman's body lay at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street — a business area with antique shops on the edge of blighted housing. The body had been there since at least Wednesday. As days passed, people covered the corpse with blankets or plastic.

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