NEW ORLEANS – Using the unmistakable threat of force, police and soldiers went house to house Wednesday to try to coax the last 10,000 or so stubborn holdouts to leave storm-shattered New Orleans (search) because of the risk of disease from the putrid, sewage-laden floodwaters.
"A large group of young armed men armed with M-16s just arrived at my door and told me that I have to leave," said Patrick McCarty, who owns several buildings and lives in one of them in the city's Lower Garden District. "While not saying they would arrest you, the inference is clear."
A frail-looking 86-year-old Anthony Charbonnet grumbled as he locked his front door and walked slowly backward down the steps of the house where he had lived since 1955.
"I haven't left my house in my life," he said as soldiers took him to a helicopter. "I don't want to leave."
Mayor C. Ray Nagin (search) ordered law officers and the military late Tuesday to evacuate all holdouts — by force if necessary. He warned that the combination of fetid water, fires and natural gas leaks after Hurricane Katrina (search) made it too dangerous to stay.
In fact, the first government tests confirmed Wednesday that the amount of sewage-related bacteria in the floodwaters is at least 10 times higher than acceptable safety levels. Dr. Julie Gerberding, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned stragglers not to even touch the water and pleaded: "If you haven't left the city yet, you must do so."
As of midday, there were no reports of anyone being removed by force. And it was not clear how the order would be carried out.
Active-military troops said they had no plans to use force. National Guard officers said they do not take orders from the mayor. And even the police said they were not ready to use force just yet. It appeared that the mere threat of force would be the first option.
"We have thousands of people who want to voluntarily evacuate at this time," Police Chief Eddie Compass said. "Once they are all out, then we'll concentrate our forces on mandatory evacuation."
Mindful of the bad publicity that could result from images of weary residents dragged out of their homes at gunpoint, Compass said that when his officers start using force, it will be the minimum amount necessary.
"If you are somebody who is 350 pounds, it will obviously take more force to move you than if you are 150 pounds," the chief said.
The stepped-up evacuation came as workers trying to get into the city to restart essential services came under sniper fire. More than 100 officers and seven armored personnel carriers captured a suspect in a housing project who had been firing on workers trying to restore cell phone towers, authorities said.
"These cell teams are getting fire on almost a daily basis, so we needed to get in here and clean this thing up," said Capt. Jeff Winn, commander of the police SWAT team. "We're putting a lot of people on the street right now and I think that we are bringing it under control. Eight days ago this was a mess. Every day is getting a little bit better."
The police chief boasted that 7,000 more military, police and other law officers on the streets had made New Orleans "probably the safest city in America right now."
Across miles of ravaged neighborhoods of clapboard houses, grand estates and housing projects, workers struggled to find and count corpses sniffed out by cadaver dogs in the 90-degree heat. The mayor has said New Orleans' death toll could reach 10,000. Already, a temporary warehouse morgue in rural St. Gabriel that had been prepared to take 1,000 bodies was being readied to handle 5,000.
Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has 25,000 body bags on hand in Louisiana.
Asked if authorities expected as many as 25,000 bodies, he said: "We don't know what to expect."
"It means we're prepared," Johannessen said.
The enormity of the disaster came ever-clearer in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, which was hit by a levee break that brought a wall of water up to 20 feet high. State Rep. Nita Hutter said 30 people died at a flooded nursing home in Chalmette when the staff left the elderly residents behind in their beds. And Rep. Charlie Melancon said more than 100 people died at a dockside warehouse while they waited for rescuers to ferry them to safety.
The floodwaters continued to recede, though slowly, with only 23 of the city's normal contingent of 148 pumps in operation, along with three portable pumps. The water in St. Bernard Parish had fallen 5 feet.
Because of the standing water, doctors were being urged to watch for diarrheal illnesses caused by such things as E. coli bacteria, certain viruses, and a type of cholera-like bacteria common along the warm Gulf Coast.
Given the extent of the misery, Louisiana's two U.S. senators — Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter — wrote a letter to Senate leaders Wednesday urging them to put aside partisan bickering in assigning blame over the federal response and focus on providing for victims.
"Please do not make the citizens of Louisiana a victim once again by allowing our immediate needs to be delayed by partisanship," they wrote.
In Washington, the Bush administration announced Wednesday that dispossessed victims of Hurricane Katrina would receive debit cards good for $2,000 to spend on clothing and other immediate needs. The plan was to quickly begin distributing the cards, starting with people in major evacuation centers such as the Houston Astrodome.
Patricia Kelly was driven out of her home by flooding in the low-lying Ninth Ward and took up residence under a tattered, dirty green-and-white-striped patio umbrella in front of an abandoned barber shop. Despite the warnings, she refused to leave.
"We're surviving every day, trying to tolerate the situation by the grace of God. He's keeping us holding on just one day at a time," she said. "I'm going to stay as long as the Lord says so. If they come with a court order, then we'll leave."
Sgt. Joseph Boarman of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, whose soldiers helped coax people from their homes, said he could almost understand the reluctance to leave: "It's their home. You know how hard it is to leave home, no matter what condition it's in."
Dolores Devron lashed out in anger as soldiers led her and her husband, Forcell, out of their flooded home.
"There are dead babies tied to poles and they're dragging us out and leaving the dead babies. That ain't right!" she screamed, waving her arms as she was directed onto a troop carrier truck.
In the high and dry French Quarter, 48-year-old Jack Jones said he would resist if authorities tried to force him out of the home where he has lived since the 1970s.
While the streets were strewn with garbage, rotting food and downed power lines, Jones kept his block pristine, sweeping daily, spraying for mosquitoes and even pouring bleach down drains to kill germs.
Jones said the sick, the elderly and people who lack supplies should be evacuated — but not folks like him. He has 15 cases of drinking water, a generator, canned ravioli, wine, coffee and three cartons of Marlboros.
"I've got everything I need," he said. "I just want to be left alone."