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Ruptured levee repaired as search-and-recovery goes on

NEW ORLEANS—Engineers repaired a ruptured levee Monday and floodwaters receded a bit as some suburban residents, carrying suitcases and heavy hearts, briefly returned to their homes and sifted through the sodden debris.

Rescue crews still sought the living and the dead, and the mayor of New Orleans shared a ghastly estimate of Hurricane Katrina's human toll—as many as 10,000 people dead, though he didn't cite the basis for that statement.

Mayor Ray Nagin also announced significant progress, especially at the storm-broken 17th Street Canal levee, which engineers said Monday night had been repaired, allowing some water to be pumped out of city.

But grim news continued to arrive: Biloxi, Miss., Mayor A.J. Holloway said he expected the death toll in his Mississippi city to exceed that of Hurricane Camille, which killed 200 people in 1969.

In the New Orleans area, many of those who briefly returned to suburban Jefferson Parish or stayed there throughout the ordeal reported a landscape dotted with bodies.

On Stella Street, Eric Breaux said he saw 15 corpses, most of them caught in barbed wire at the Metairie Country Club. "I don't want to see it again," he said. "I personally tied three dead bodies to street signs."

Authorities permitted residents of the area, a parish just west of New Orleans that includes Metairie and Kenner, to inspect their houses and recover possessions worth removing.

Many neighborhoods still were flooded to the rooftops, but others had dried out, leaving behind an awful, reeking residue. About 460,000 people lived in the suburban parish before the storm, and now some labored on a day that felt like anything but a holiday.

"We have lost everything," Carol Crokem of Kenner said as she surveyed what was left of the home on West Tulane Lane where she and her husband raised three children and two grandchildren.

Maggots gathered at her front door, and sewage and garbage polluted the interior.

In Metaire, Vinson Serio, 59, stacked dining room chairs outside while his wife, Claire, 57, swept malodorous black water from their home. Among the destroyed possessions: his daughter's never worn wedding dress.

"I'm grateful it wasn't death," Serio said. "But it's bad as far as destruction, emotional destruction."

As they and others viewed the wreckage of their houses and their lives—and as the water in and around New Orleans slowly receded, President Bush conducted another partial tour of the region, though he again bypassed New Orleans.

"We're here for the long term," Bush said during a stop in Poplarville, Miss., 45 miles inland but savaged by Katrina. He's been harshly criticized over the federal response.

At the same time, rescue crews continued searching for people still believed trapped throughout the vast region assaulted by Katrina more than a week ago.

In New Orleans, as many as 10,000 people were thought to have been left behind—or chose to stay.

"To our surprise, there are still thousands of people—thousands of people—inside this city who we are trying to identify and relocate," said Warren Riley, deputy chief of New Orleans' police force. "There is absolutely no reason for them to stay. No jobs, no food ...

"We advise people that this city has been destroyed."

Though there were some exceptions, the large-scale rescues of the weekend seemed nearly over, signifying a shift from finding the living to preparing to recover the dead.

Crews aboard U.S. Navy search-and-rescue helicopters spent much of the morning searching in vain, buzzing the rooftops, floating just above putrid, fuel-stained olive-black waters.

Car and truck roofs remained submerged, and holes in rooftops attested to previously successful rescues.

"You see some of the roofs without holes right next to the ones that have them," said Ren Owens, 26, a Naval rescue officer. "It kind of makes you wonder what's in there or who's in there."

Throughout the day, National Guard troops probed sections of the city, searching for holdouts or the trapped, producing war-like scenes that seemed almost cinematic.

In the city's Garden District, troops formed lines along either side of the oak-lined streets and conducted reconnaissance missions. They found 56 people in a parking garage a few buildings away from their newly commandeered headquarters on St. Charles Avenue.

They picked up 85 more at the intersection of Napoleon and St. Charles avenues, where rescue boats dropped off people plucked from flooded houses.

The order for forced removals hadn't yet come, said Maj. David Parker of the Oklahoma National Guard, but if it does, he's prepared. "We'll use sheer force," he said, "or coercion of some type."

Elsewhere, at a spot not yet reached by the patrols, a helicopter fluttered overhead and a woman yelled at it. "Please come down," Jarnette Williams said, waving her arms frantically. "We want to leave."

Riley said at least 400 of his 1,600 officers were unaccounted for, but 4,000 soldiers, National Guard troops and police officers from other cities and states augmented his demoralized police force. He said they were bringing order to a city that had descended into anarchy.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said Sunday night that all uniformed New Orleans officers would be pulled off the streets and sent for evaluation and counseling, but Riley offered no such indication Monday.

"We feel the city is very secure," Riley said, though he reminded everyone of the magnitude of the challenge and the scale of the work that remained. "This was probably the greatest catastrophe in an American city."

Asked for his estimate of the death toll, Nagin told NBC's "Today" program: "It wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000" dead.

He also cited some progress, especially at the broken 17th Street Canal levee, which he said was 85 percent repaired.

During his visit, Bush stopped in Baton Rouge, a city largely untouched by Katrina but now nearly overwhelmed with evacuees. Its population mushroomed from 225,000 to 325,000 within a week, city officials said, and soon could reach 450,000.

Although the federal effort has been widely criticized as slow, insufficient and uncoordinated, Bush was upbeat.

"All levels of the government are doing the best they can," he said during a stop at a shelter at the Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge. "So long as any life is in danger, we've got work to do.

"Where it's not going right," he said "we're going to make it right."

Stung by accusations of racism, given that most of the victims are black and poor, he met with several African-American ministers, but many people remained unconvinced.

"How else can you explain it?" said Ronald Walters, a political science professor and director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "Look at how the president responded to hurricanes that took place on the other side of Florida in predominantly white populations. ...

"White life has always been more valuable than black life," Walters charged. "That explains it for people."

Bush hasn't responded directly to the allegations.

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(Kavanaugh of the Kansas City Star reported from Kenner, La., Pompilio of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported from Metairie, La., and Merzer of The Miami Herald reported from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Oscar Corral and David Ovalle of The Miami Herald in New Orleans; Sarah Bahari of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Baton Rouge; and Ron Hutcheson and Tony Pugh of Knight Ridder's Washington bureau contributed to this report.)

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

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

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050905 KATRINA refugees, 20050905 KATRINA port, 20050905 KATRINA losses

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