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In Chalmette, rescuers chase rumors through murky streets

CHALMETTE, La.—Mud and misinformation are among the biggest challenges officials face in reviving St. Bernard Parish.

The floodwaters that swallowed houses have mostly receded, only to be replaced by a thick, toxic sludge. Officials liken it to quicksand and say it has hampered efforts to retrieve bodies.

And just how many dead are there? The parish's coroner has heard plenty of reports: more than a dozen bodies lashed together, and 100 dead in a warehouse used as a staging ground to ferry evacuees across the Mississippi River.

Dr. Bryan Bertucci, the parish coroner, said 24 bodies have been recovered so far. "If I don't see the body, I don't count it," he said.

The rumor mill and the mud are not unique to this wasteland east of New Orleans. But the challenges—to rescue survivors, collect bodies and rebuild—feel more overwhelming here because of the region's remoteness and the almost complete destruction.

While other parishes had some dry spots or kept some neighborhoods intact, that was not the case in St. Bernard, where two major oil refineries, a sugar plant and fishing form the basis of a blue-collar lifestyle.

Officials say flood and wind damage ravaged the entire parish.

Lifeless brown trees list in unison over the highway as if slapped over in one swift blow. Wrecked houses, once nearly submerged, sport holes in the roofs where residents burrowed through to escape the floodwater.

A hole in a refinery tank spilled 150,000 gallons of oil, covering a wide area, officials said.

"It's an overwhelming tragedy when everything you've known is washed away. It's going to be an emotional struggle for everyone to come and see everything gone," said St. Bernard Parish Councilman Mark Madary.

Said Sheriff's Office Capt. Chad Clark: "There's not one deputy that has a house. It's terrible, man."

The parish president, Henry Rodriguez Jr., says there are likely only about 100 residents left after thousands evacuated.

Rescuers were able to recover 10 bodies from St. Rita's nursing home and saw nine more, but were not able to pull them out. At least 2 feet of muck prevented them from removing them or opening doors to get to other rooms.

Officials figure the reeking mud should begin to dry up over the weekend, but so far it has trapped a front-end loader and caked the inside of buildings, making house-to-house searches difficult.

And the slush, much of it swampy marshland channeled in during the flood, has virtually encased bodies.

"It's like a quicksand-type stuff," said Bertucci, the parish coroner. "It's going to be a mess to pick these people up."

In a subdivision called Jumonville, the mud has prevented rescuers from recovering the bodies of perhaps a dozen bodies seen lashed together. Reports were sketchy.

Indeed, that constant flow of nebulous reports has spawned a rumor mill.

The St. Bernard Web site warns that information it contained "may be considered non-accurate during these very serious times." It added: "If some of you do have accurate facts, please alert us."

Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., told reporters this week that he was told 100 people died in a warehouse used as a ferrying point to take evacuees across the river.

"That is misinformation," declared Madary, the parish councilman, who said no one died at the 120,000-square-foot warehouse. He said it is possible sick and elderly may have died after being ferried out aboard a 50-by-120-foot barge known only as the "B-911."

Melancon retracted his statement, but not before it was published in newspapers across the country.

On Thursday, other unconfirmed reports buzzed through the parish's emergency operations center in Chalmette. Ambulances from an unknown agency had been spotted at a nursing home. Men in hazardous-materials suits had been seen gearing up. They found 15 bodies.

Nonsense, said Paul Verrette, the medical director of homeland security and emergency operations for St. Bernard.

"We had verification," he said, "that they left the day before the storm."

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(Ovalle reports for The Miami Herald.)

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050909 CHALMETTE

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

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