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New Orleans Sweep Suggests Fewer Dead Than Feared

Alarming predictions of as many as 10,000 dead in New Orleans may have been greatly exaggerated, with authorities saying Friday that the first street-by-street sweep of the swamped city revealed far fewer corpses than feared.

"Some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred," said Col. Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security chief.

He declined to give a revised estimate. But he added: "Numbers so far are relatively minor as compared to the dire projections of 10,000."

The encouraging news came as workers repairing New Orleans' system of levees and water pumps projected Friday that it will take a month to dry out the city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Authorities officially shifted most of their attention to counting and removing the dead after spending days cajoling, persuading and all but strong-arming the living into leaving the city because of the danger of fires and disease from the fetid floodwaters.

Ever since the hurricane struck Aug. 29, residents, rescuers and cadaver-sniffing dogs have found bodies floating in the waters, trapped in attics or deft lying on broken highways. Some were dropped off at hospital doorsteps or left slumped in wheelchairs out in the open.

Mayor Ray Nagin suggested last weekend that "it wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000" dead, and authorities ordered 25,000 body bags. But soldiers who had been brought in over the past few days to help in the search were not seeing that kind of toll.

"There's nothing at all in the magnitude we anticipated," said Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division (search).

Ebbert said the search for the dead will be done systematically, block-by-block, with dignity and with no news media allowed to follow along. "You can imagine sitting in Houston and watching somebody removed from your parents' property. We don't think that's proper," he said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (search)said most of the city could be drained by Oct. 2, but some of the eastern areas of New Orleans and the hard-hit community of Chalmette, across the Mississippi River, could be under water until Oct. 8. Plaquemines Parish, which suffered a storm surge from the coast, could take another 10 days to drain.

The Corps had previously said it could take up to 80 days to drain the city. Friday marked the first time engineers offered detailed time tables.

The effort to get water out of the city, which had been 80 percent covered following the storm and levee breaches, was helped by dry weather and gaps blown in the levees to allow floodwaters to drain out.

Over the past few days, police and soldiers trying to rescue the living marked houses where corpses were found, or noted their location with global positioning devices, so that the bodies could be collected later.

A dozen boats awaiting calls to retrieve bodies were lined up early Friday on an interstate ramp that was being used as a makeshift boat launch. Soldiers also hauled the last of the bodies out of the convention center, which became an increasingly violent and chaotic place before the evacuees were finally removed a week ago.

State officials could not provide an exact count of the dead recovered so far. Corpses from New Orleans were taken to a morgue in nearby St. Gabriel, where medical examiners worked to identify the remains.

"The ones who wanted to leave, I would say most of them are out," said Detective Sgt. James Imbrogglio.

Still, thousands of stubborn holdouts were believed to staying put in the city, and authorities continued trying to clear them out.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 people were believed to be stubbornly staying put in the city, despite Hurricane Katrina's filthy, corpse-strewn floodwaters and orders from Mayor Ray Nagin (search) earlier this week to get out or be removed against their will.

Police fearing deadly confrontations with jittery residents enforced a new order that bars homeowners from owning guns. That order apparently does not apply to the hundreds of M-16-toting private security guards hired to protect businesses and wealthy property owners.

But there were still no reports of anyone being taken out by force under the three-day-old order from the mayor, and there were growing indications that that was little more than an empty threat.

"We're trying our best to persuasively negotiate and we are not using force at this time -- I cannot speak to the future," said city attorney Sherry Landry. "If we find it necessary we will do so. We would like to make this a last resort."

In a shift, the military began providing cages to homeowners to allow them to evacuate with their pets. "We got the capacity, and it seemed like the right thing to do," said Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore.

Some residents who had previously refused to leave — whether because they wanted to protect their homes from looters, did not want to leave their pets behind or simply feared the unknown — are now changing their minds and asking to be rescued, police said.

"They realize they're not going to this awful situation like the Superdome or the Convention Center," Riley said. "As days go by, it seems less and less likely that we'll have to force anyone."

Across the city, there were signs of hope.

The EMS said Friday that 911 operations were up and running and they were answering calls as quickly as possible. Paramedics were using high-water vehicles to get people out and had not yet switched their mission from one of rescue to one of recovery.

The floodwaters continued to recede, with about three dozen of the 174 pumps in the area working and an additional 17 portable pumps in place. While 350,000 people in the New Orleans area were still without electricity, utilities said some power has been restored to the central business district.

"They were all insisting that I had to leave my home," said Shelia Dalferes, who said she had 15 minutes to pack before she and her husband were evacuated. "The implication was there with their plastic handcuffs on their belt. Who wants to go out like that?"

Residents are being removed because although toxic floodwaters are receding, the task of collecting rotting corpses and clearing debris will likely take months. Public health officials have said various diseases could run rampant in New Orleans and have warned people to not drink or use the water there.

"It's getting to the point where they're delirious," Rule said. "A couple of them didn't know who they were. They think the water will go down in a few days."

Collecting Corpses and Identifying the Dead

Ever since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, residents, rescuers and cadaver-sniffing dogs have found bodies floating in the waters, trapped in attics or left lying on broken highways. Some were dropped off at hospital doorsteps or left slumped in wheelchairs out in the open.

Ebbert said the search for the dead will be done systematically, block-by-block, with dignity and with no news media allowed to follow along. "You can imagine sitting in Houston and watching somebody removed from your parents' property. We don't think that's proper," he said.

A dozen boats awaiting calls to retrieve bodies were lined up early Friday on an interstate ramp that was being used as a makeshift boat launch.

At two collection sites, federal mortuary teams gathered information that might help identify the bodies, such as where they were found. Personal effects were also being logged.

At a temporary morgue set up in nearby St. Gabriel (search), where 67 bodies had been collected by Thursday, the remains were being photographed and forensic workers hoped to use dental X-rays, fingerprints and DNA to identify them.

Dr. Bryan Patucci, coroner of St. Bernard Parish (search), said it may be impossible to identify all the victims until authorities compile a final list of missing people.

Decaying corpses in the floodwaters could pose problems for engineers who are desperately trying to pump the city dry. While 37 of the 174 pumps in the New Orleans area were working and 17 portable pumps were in place Thursday, officials said the mammoth undertaking could be complicated by corpses getting clogged in the pumps.

"It's got a huge focus of our attention right now," said John Rickey of the Army Corps of Engineers. "Those remains are people's loved ones."

Separately, Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, said the last of the bodies at the convention center would be taken out on Friday.

Thousands took shelter there for days with little or no food or water, in what became an increasingly chaotic and violent situation, and several people were found dead.

Authorities said the airport will reopen to commercial flights Sept. 19. Firefighters were heartened to learn that water pressure has begun to return, though the water is still not safe to drink.

Residents of St. Tammany Parish, just across Lake Pontchartrain (search) from New Orleans, were allowed to return to their homes to see the damage and clean up. The Postal Service opened 37 offices in several parishes south of the city, though deliveries were still impossible along flooded streets and many postal workers remained among the missing.

The developments in New Orleans came against an increasingly stormy backdrop in Washington, where Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown was relieved of his command of the onsite relief efforts amid increasing criticism over the sluggishness of the agency's response and questions over his background.

Brown Sent Back to Washington, Storm Cost Soars

Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown (search) was removed from his role managing Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in the Gulf Coast and was heading back to D.C., officials said Friday.

Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff (search) said Brown would be sent back to Washington from Baton Rouge to oversee FEMA from the nation's capital. He had been in Louisiana heading up the storm relief efforts.

The officials said he'll be replaced in Baton Rouge by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen (search), who'd been managing relief and rescue efforts in New Orleans.

Brown has run into criticism over the federal response to the hurricane. And now, questions are being raised about whether he exaggerated his emergency management background.

Earlier Friday President Bush declared that the nation was ready to "overcome any challenge," linking hurricane recovery and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks four years ago.

"America is a strong and resilient nation," Bush said.

Meanwhile, the federal bill for Hurricane Katrina relief soared past $62 billion, and the White House and members of Congress said it was bound to keep climbing. Bush scheduled his third trip to the devastated region for the weekend.

On Thursday, Congress rushed through an additional $51.8 billion for Katrina relief, and President Bush pledged to make it "easy and simple as possible" for uprooted storm victims to collect food stamps and other government benefits.

To counter criticism of the slow federal response to the disaster, Vice President Dick Cheney toured parts of the ravaged Gulf Coast, claiming significant progress but acknowledging immense obstacles remained to a full recovery.

Democrats threatened to boycott the naming of a panel that Republican leaders are proposing to investigate the administration's readiness and response to the storm. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said it was like a baseball pitcher calling "his own balls and strikes."

Democrats have urged the appointment of an independent panel like the Sept. 11 commission.

Former Sept. 11 commissioner Tim Roemer told FOX News on Friday that the idea of a Katrina panel free of partisan bickering is a good one.

"Do it the right way, don't put Democrats or Republicans who are worried about the next election in charge" of the panel, Roemer said, adding that the group should have subpoena power, as well. And "get the right information — not to blame somebody — we've got too much at stake."

He also suggested that former President Jimmy Carter or former Secretary of State Colin Powell should be in charge of rebuilding New Orleans and focusing on long-term housing issues.

Asked if he was being made a scapegoat, Brown told The Associated Press: "By the press, yes. By the president, No."

Meanwhile, scores of Louisiana National Guardsmen began arriving home from Iraq. About 800 members of Louisiana's 256th Brigade Combat Team volunteered to join the relief effort, while about 1,500 will return to their civilian jobs, if any of those positions are left.

For Spc. Nathan Faust of Chalmette in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, it is a total loss. His family home is flooded to the peak of the roof.

"All my stuff, all my family, everyone's homeless," said Faust, 23. "I want to move out of the city and start over someplace else. I can't put my life on hold for two years and wait for the city to get back on its feet."

Power Still Down, Fires Still Burning

Some 400,000 homes in the city were still without power, with no immediate prospect of getting it back.

But power had been restored to about 700,000 customers by Friday, according to city officials.

In a small sign of progress, authorities said the New Orleans airport will reopen to commercial flights on Sept. 19. Caldwell said water and power are functioning at the airport.

Fires also continued to be a problem. At least 11 blazes burned across the city Thursday, though many had been quelled by Friday. Three buildings were destroyed at historically black Dillard University.

And the first planeload of 100 weary Louisiana National Guardsmen touched down in Maine Friday morning, returning from Iraq on their way to the their home state, where they face the task of finding scattered families.

Meanwhile, an AP-Ipsos poll found that 54 percent of Americans want the four-fifths of New Orleans that was flooded by Hurricane Katrina moved to a safer location. They said the areas of the city lying below sea level should be abandoned and rebuilt on higher ground.

FOX News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.