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Authorities warn of a possibly huge death toll from Katrina; rescue and recovery efforts continue

NEW ORLEANS—On the seventh day, authorities issued dire predictions of the human cost of Hurricane Katrina, even as search teams in boats and helicopters still floated and flew on missions of mercy.

"We need to prepare the country for what's coming," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday. "We are going to uncover people who died hiding in the houses, maybe got caught in floods. It is going to be as ugly a scene as you can imagine."

One burst of ugliness exploded in New Orleans when police shot eight people carrying guns on the Danziger Bridge. Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley said five people were killed in the incident, which apparently involved a prior attack by gunmen on contractors assigned to repair a canal. No other details were available.

Chertoff's comments and others by federal officials echoed the foreboding prophecies of state and city officials and seemed designed to condition Americans for death counts that could reach startling proportions. President Bush on Sunday called Katrina a "tidal wave of disaster."

Louisiana officials released their first official death toll—59—but said they already knew of 100 other victims in the state, and they expected the number to rise precipitously as attention turned from searching for survivors to recovering the dead.

"We were working for the living, and now we are working for the dead and the living," said Dr. Louis Cataldie, a state medical official in Louisiana. "It's pretty tough, pulling out dead bodies."

In St. Gabriel, La., northwest of New Orleans, authorities guarded a 125,000-square-foot warehouse transformed into a morgue capable of holding more than 1,000 bodies. Residents said refrigerated and other trucks had been stopping there for days, though no one knew if any bodies had been delivered.

"I wasn't able to help the living," said St. Gabriel Mayor George Grace, "so I was not at all upset about having a suitable place to house the dead."

In the New Orleans area, here and there, down this blocked street and around that tattered corner, portions of the city blinked back to life. Some people emerged from their homes for the first time in almost a week; some traffic lights even burst into green, yellow and red.

"Today, Sunday—right now—this is the first time I've come out," said Deborah Phelps, 56, of the Bywater section, near the French Quarter.

And so, also on the seventh day, clergy and their flocks prayed for the souls of the dead—and for deliverance of the living.

"God didn't bring this destruction on us," Vince Munoz of Biloxi, Miss., told 40 people at what little was left of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Biloxi, where congregants worshipped in an outdoor courtyard under the speckled shade of gnarled oak trees.

"It's the nature of the planet since the Garden of Eden," he said. "God is using this to help us reach out to each other."

Throughout the region, people did reach out to each other, often with sad results.

Rescue teams along the upper Gulf Coast struggled to gain access to wrecked inland communities, and when they did reach them, they often discovered bodies.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said 12 fatalities were found in Laurel, Miss., almost 100 miles inland.

In the largely dead city of New Orleans, an odd, eerie sense of serenity was punctuated only by the sound of helicopters hovering above rescue sites.

Missing were the usual post-storm sounds of recovery—the hum of portable generators, the buzz of chainsaws clearing roads, the tap-tap-tap of homeowners hammering blue tarpaulins on broken roofs.

One reason: Very few survivors remained in a city that little more than a week earlier was home to 485,000 people. Most of the living had been evacuated, but casualties still floated down the streets of New Orleans and lay abandoned on highways.

Still, holdouts refused to leave, to the amazement of appalled volunteers who searched house-to-house through flooded, broken, starving neighborhoods.

At one point, a U.S. Navy helicopter hoisted a resident in a basket, brought her into the helicopter and whisked her away to one of the area's evacuation centers. Her neighbors wept and waved as they watched her go.

They said they were staying behind to care for older residents who refused to depart.

"That is not a reasonable alternative," Chertoff told "Fox News Sunday." "We are not going to be able to have people sitting in houses in the city of New Orleans for weeks and months while we de-water and clean this city."

A water rescue team from Jefferson County, Ky., worked as hard to persuade people to evacuate as it worked to find them in the first place.

"The ones who didn't want to leave at first are now realizing they're running out of food, water and medicine, and it's time to go," said Eddie Whitworth, a team member.

Whitworth said the rescuers found two families that didn't want to leave the bodies of loved ones behind, but ultimately they were convinced that they had to save themselves.

Every day, the rescuers said, they find bodies in houses.

Those who insisted on remaining behind included some of the city's quirkiest inhabitants, people such as Larry Wheeler, a disabled Vietnam veteran who sat in a lounge chair outside his apartment on dry but tree-clogged Sophie Wright Place. He smoked a cigarette and listened to the radio.

He pointed to his second-floor apartment. "That's Fort Larry right up there," he said.

Much of the metropolitan area was still flooded, but portions of the city had avoided the floods, though not the chaos provoked by the hurricane and its aftermath.

The sense of danger that was prevalent on Thursday and Friday had dissipated but not disappeared. People who'd been afraid to come out of their homes for fear of looters finally did so. Police, National Guardsmen and deputy sheriffs from far-away counties and parishes patrolled the city—with weapons at the ready.

In the city's Bywater section, some ventured out of their homes for the first time in days.

Phelps, who lives in that area, said she'd been a virtual prisoner of her house since Tuesday. She stayed throughout the hurricane to tend to her 86-year-old father, who didn't want to leave.

"People were coming by with guns and knives," Phelps said. "My dad kept saying, `When are they bringing help? When are they bringing help?' We were afraid to leave our house."

In neighboring Jefferson Parish, some traffic signals were coming to life. Work crews in lift trucks worked on traffic signals on Causeway Boulevard. On River Road, which hugs the Mississippi River levee, some signals were already on.

To the north, in the now-overwhelmed city of Baton Rouge, hundreds of evacuees continued to pour into makeshift shelters, often seeking lost relatives. City officials fear that the parish's population of about 415,000 soon could double.

One man carried a sign with the name of his wife's family scrawled on it. Children searched lists for names of missing siblings. A mother asked volunteers for help finding her daughter.

"This is an immense task," said Red Cross spokesman Dick Burch of reuniting families.

In other developments:

_Oil refiners made progress in restoring some of their lost production capacity. ExxonMobil Corp., Marathon Oil Corp. and offshore pipeline operators said their operations were beginning to ramp up.

_Medical examiners said they expected to have great difficulty identifying many of the victims. Many birth and dental records have been destroyed.

"I don't think visual identification is a possibility," said Cataldie, the Louisiana health official. "They have just been in the water too long."

_Senate Majority Leader, Dr. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., worked on patients at the makeshift medical treatment center at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. Frist said he arrived there Saturday and called the progress made at the airport facility "amazing."

"Yesterday was organized chaos," he said. "Today, there's no chaos."

_Emergency managers in Texas and many other parts of the country began coming to grips with the long-term consequences of the mass relocation of Americans generated by Katrina.

More than 250,000 Louisiana evacuees were now living in Texas. Others were expected as far away as Utah, West Virginia and Iowa.

In San Antonio, workers set up row after row of cots to accommodate 4,500 people in a warehouse on the former Kelly Air Force Base.

"We are preparing for the long haul," said district fire chief Randy Jenkins.

_Private donations to Katrina relief reached $404 million, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a trade publication for charities. Donors are giving more and faster than after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or December's Indian Ocean tsunami, according to the Chronicle.


Also contributing to this report were Erika Bolstad, David Ovalle, Nicholas Spangler and William Douglas in New Orleans; Melody McDonald in St. Gabriel, La.; Sarah Bahari and Frances Robles in Baton Rouge, La.,; John Moritz in San Antonio; Kymberli Hagelberg in Biloxi, Miss., and Frank Greve in Washington.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Katrina

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Katrina

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