NEW ORLEANS – Police officers and soldiers did another house-to-house sweep of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans Friday to try to convince those still clinging to their homes to evacuate, and what they saw raised hopes that the city's death toll could be much lower than projected.
"I think there's some encouragement in what we've found in the initial sweeps that some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred," said Terry Ebbert (search), New Orleans' homeland security chief.
They said Friday that their first systematic sweep of the city found far fewer bodies than expected, suggesting that Hurricane Katrina (search)'s death toll may not be the catastrophic 10,000 feared.
Ebbert declined to give a new estimate of the dead.
"Numbers so far are relatively minor as compared to the dire projections of 10,000," Ebbert said.
Earlier in the week, the mayor had said the death toll in New Orleans alone could be 10,000, and state officials had ordered 25,000 body bags.
Authorities marked the houses they found with dead bodies inside so they could return later to clear them out.
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Police and soldiers took firearms away from gun owners and tried to convince those who'd refused to leave their homes to get out to avoid disease and fire.
Officials said their sweep of the flooded city for the last voluntary evacuees was nearly complete.
"The ones who wanted to leave, I would say most of them are out," said Detective Sgt. James Imbrogglio.
There were conflicting stories Friday about whether those who still refused to leave would be removed by force. Police and the mayor initially said they would.
Police Chief Eddie Compass said officers would use the "minimum amount of force" necessary.
But city attorney Sherry Landry said Friday there would be no force used.
"We are not conducting forced evacuations," she told reporters just after noon. "We're not going to use force right now. It's a safety issue for them and a safety issue for us."
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.
By midmorning Friday, though, there were no immediate reports of anyone being taken out forcibly, police said.
Officers are "not going to do that until we absolutely have to. We really don't want to do that at all," Deputy Chief Warren Riley said.
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."
He added: "I don't know of any incidents where people are being belligerent."
Some residents said they left under extreme pressure.
"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?"
Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Jason Rule said his crew pulled 18 people from their homes Thursday. He said some of the holdouts did not want to leave unless they could take their pets.
"It's getting to the point where they're delirious," Rule said. "A couple of them don't know who they were. They think the water will go down in a few days."
Residents are being removed because although toxic floodwaters have started to slowly recede, 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.
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.
Police and soldiers also seized numerous guns for fear of confrontations with jittery residents who have armed themselves against looters.
"No one will be able to be armed. We are going to take all the weapons," Riley said.
On Thursday, in the city's well-to-do Lower Garden District, a neighborhood with many antebellum mansions, members of the Oklahoma National Guard seized weapons from the inhabitants of one home. Those who were armed were handcuffed and briefly detained before being let go.
"Walking up and down these streets, you don't want to think about the stuff that you're going to have to do, if somebody pops out around a corner," said one of the Guardsmen, Chris Montgomery.
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 82nd Airborne Division (search), 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.
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.
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.