New Orleans Slowly Recovers

Small glimmers of hope shone through the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina (search) in New Orleans, with traffic jamming up on the only open highway, business owners streaming back to retrieve documents and floodwaters continuing to slowly but steadily recede.

Business owners in the central business district were issued passes into the city Monday to retrieve vital records or equipment needed to run their companies.

Traffic was heavy on the only major highway into the city that was still open, and vehicles were backed up for about two miles at a National Guard checkpoint in Westwego, a suburb across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

There were also signs of life at businesses elsewhere in the city, after a weekend in which trash collection began and the airport reopened to cargo flights.

In the French Quarter (search), Nick Ditta was at Mango Mango, the bar he manages on Bourbon Street, searching for time cards.

"It's a mess man. There is no doubt about it," Ditta said. "But our people are going to get paid. That's all I'm worried about."

But the scene in New Orleans was still mostly grim on Monday, in spite of the small signs of progress.

Forty-five bodies were found at a hospital that was abandoned a week ago. All of the dead were patients at Memorial Medical Center, said Bob Johannesen, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Hospitals.

There was also a shakeup within the federal government Monday, with the announcement that the embattled Michael Brown (search) resigned as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) (search), after having been sent back to Washington Friday from overseeing on-site relief efforts.

Brown told The Associated Press he was stepping down because it was "in the best interest of the agency and best interest of the president."

He had been blamed for the federal government's sluggish response in the first days after the hurricane wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, and accused of embellishing his prior emergency management experience on his résumé.

President Bush got his first up-close look at the destruction in New Orleans on Monday, taking a tour that took him through several flooded neighborhoods. Occasionally, he had to duck to avoid low-hanging electrical wires and branches.

The president denied there was any racial component to the way the government responded to the disaster, disputing assertions that Washington was sluggish because so many of the victims were poor and black.

"The storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort," Bush said. He also rejected suggestions that the nation's military was stretched too thinly with the war in Iraq to deal with the Gulf Coast devastation.

Military cargo airplanes were set to begin spraying the New Orleans area on Monday to kill flies and mosquitoes.

The standing water from Katrina is expected to worsen Louisiana's already considerable mosquito problem. Before the storm hit, the state had logged 78 cases of mosquito-borne West Nile virus and four deaths from the disease this year.

Among the businessmen allowed back into the city was Terry Cockerham, owner of Service Glass, which installs windows at businesses downtown. He has been working out of his house because his business was destroyed by looters and flooding.

"This is about the most work I've ever had," he said. "We'll work seven days a week until we get this job finished. I don't want to get rich. I just want to get everything back right."

In the French Quarter, burnt-orange rubble from terra-cotta roof tiles sat in neat piles for collection along the curb. Bourbon Street was cleaner than it ever is during Mardi Gras. And Donald Jones, a 57-year-old lifelong resident, said he was no longer armed when walking his street.

"The first five days I never went out of my house without my gun. Now I don't carry it," Jones said over the weekend. "The only people I meet is military."

Though 50 percent of New Orleans remained flooded and teams continued to collect the corpses, there were signs that the hopelessness was beginning to lift.

"Each day there's a little bit of an improvement," Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, commander of the New Orleans relief efforts, told NBC on Sunday night. "And in the end run, maybe a week, two weeks from now, someone's going to wake in the morning and have something they didn't have the day before, and that's hope."

The waters in New Orleans, which once covered 80 percent of the city, have pulled back far enough to allow for a scenic drive down Esplanade Avenue, past the handsome, columned two-story home where the French artist Edgar Degas once lived to the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park.

The same can be said for Saint Charles Avenue. While many homes are deserted and the old green street cars are gone, the beauty of the Greek Revival and Victorian homes, fronted by a canopy of live oaks, overwhelms the sight of debris piled along the road.

"I think it's livable," said John Lopez, who moved to New Orleans from the New York City area about a year ago. "If they got running water to all these buildings that are obviously inhabitable, they could get the city cleaned up a lot faster because people would be cleaning up their own blocks and their own neighborhoods."

Lopez and others are among those in the city who survived the hurricane at home, refused the subsequent order to leave and have started to clean up their neighborhoods. While they are worried about authorities forcing them to evacuate, there so far have been no reports that has happened in New Orleans.

Authorities raised Louisiana's death toll to 197 on Sunday. Teams pulled an unspecified number of bodies from Memorial Medical Center, a 317-bed hospital in uptown New Orleans that closed more than a week ago after being surrounded by floodwaters.

Elsewhere, there were nuggets of encouraging news:

— Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport reopened for cargo traffic Sunday and planned to open to limited passenger service starting Tuesday.

— The city's main wastewater treatment facility was expected to running by Monday, said Sgt. John Zeller, an engineer with the California National Guard.

— Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of active-duty troops engaged in hurricane relief, reiterated Sunday the number of dead would be "a heck of a lot lower" than initial projections of perhaps 10,000.

And residents of New Orleans were trying to re-establish pieces of the city's inimitable character. Some even found things to laugh about.

Barbara Hoover, who lives in the Faubourg-Marigny neighborhood just downriver from the French Quarter, said the military's ready-to-eat meals are "just as good, if not better, than the South Beach Diet. They're amazing."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.