NEW ORLEANS – Hurricane Katrina's (search) death toll in Louisiana jumped by more than half Tuesday to 423 as recovery workers turned more of their attention to gathering up and counting the corpses in a city all but emptied out of the living.
The state Health Department announced the new death toll, which represented a sharp increase from 279 a day before.
The number of dead is all but certain to rise, because some flooded-out areas of the city have not been fully searched. But how high it might go is unclear.
Mayor Ray Nagin (search) said earlier this month that New Orleans could have 10,000 dead. But a street-by-street sweep of the city last week yielded far fewer bodies than feared, and authorities said the toll could be well below the dire projections. But they offered no specific predictions.
Up until the past few days, authorities were slow to release numbers, saying they were concentrating on rescuing the living first. Rescuers reported pushing corpses aside, or tying them down to banisters or roofs for others to collect later.
As of Monday at least 236 people were reported dead elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, most of them in Mississippi.
"Let me caution everyone: We have not done the secondary searches in the areas where the water was the highest. So we still have a lot of work to do, and those numbers probably will go up," Nagin said Tuesday.
Over the weekend, at least 44 patients found dead at a flooded-out hospital.
Dr. Frank Minyard, the Orleans Parish coroner, suggested that further such discoveries are possible as the floodwaters recede.
"There just may be a lot of people who are still down in those deep waters, and some of waters were 10, 12, 15 feet deep," he said. "My biggest fear is that we will find something down there that is way out of proportion. Hopefully, it doesn't happen, but we worry."
The updated Louisiana numbers were released as the Gov. Kathleen Blanco lashed out at the federal government, accusing it of moving too slowly in recovering the bodies. The dead "deserve more respect than they have received," she said.
However, Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) spokesman David Passey said the state asked to take over body recovery last week. Passey said he did not understand the governor's remarks.
"The collection of bodies is not normally a FEMA responsibility," he said.
Blanco said FEMA has slowed down the process by failing to sign a contract with the company hired to handle the removal of the bodies, Houston-based Kenyon International Emergency Services. Kenyon is working without a contract but threatened to pull its workers out of Louisiana unless either the state or the federal government offered it a signed agreement, the governor said.
"No one, even those at the highest level, seems to be able to break through the bureaucracy to get this important mission done," Blanco said. "The failure to execute a contract for the recovery of our citizens has hurt the speed of recovery efforts. I am angry and outraged."
Passey said FEMA had an oral agreement with Kenyon last week, but the company decided not to sign a written contract. He said he did not know the reason, and calls to Kenyon were not immediately returned.
Blanco said the state would sign a contract with Kenyon — even though she believed the body recovery is the responsibility of FEMA — because "I could not bear to wait any longer."