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Bush gets closer look at devastation, rebuts charges of slow response

BATON ROUGE, La.—President Bush got his first close look Monday at flood-ravaged New Orleans, even as state health officials revealed another grim discovery: 45 people found dead at a hospital evacuated more than a week ago.

A hospital administrator told a dramatic story of doctors and nurses trying to keep patients alive without power, surrounded by water, while waiting for help that never arrived. At one point, helicopter evacuations were interrupted by gunfire, he said.

While touring New Orleans, the president rebutted charges of a slow response by the federal government, but that didn't save the job of Michael Brown, the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency chief. He resigned from his post on Monday.

Bush pledged that the federal government will help rebuild New Orleans in whatever form the people of the damaged city decide. He said he could see progress being made from his tour in a military convoy.

As floodwaters dropped Monday, they began to yield to signs of rebuilding and rebirth—as well as significant challenges ahead. Scattered businesses were trying to reopen; the Coast Guard allowed some ship traffic on the lower Mississippi River during daylight hours, and the first commercial flights are scheduled to resume Tuesday at Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport.

In south Mississippi, most residents were able to enjoy the simple pleasure of flushing toilets once again.

Electricity is being restored more quickly than expected to some areas of Louisiana, allowing critical industries—including oil and gas refineries—to get back to work. And Michael Olivier, a top economic development official in Louisiana, said a number of major companies plan to come back to New Orleans, including Entergy and Oreck Corp., which both temporarily relocated to other states.

But major problems remain throughout the Gulf Coast region. St. Bernard Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez said a massive oil spill may have permanently damaged about 1,500 homes in his community.

It could take eight months or more to clean out the hurricane-damaged areas, the Army Corps of Engineers said at a briefing in Washington, estimating that 20 million cubic yards of debris are scattered across the Mississippi coast alone—enough to cover 300 football fields in 50-foot piles.

The agency doesn't have estimates for Louisiana yet.

It will also take months to rebuild the important Interstate 10 connection from New Orleans to Slidell across Lake Pontchartrain. Gordon Nelson with the Louisiana Department of Transportation said two eastbound lanes should be finished in 45 days, and one westbound lane will be rebuilt by January.

Pumps continue to push 6.5 billion gallons of water out of New Orleans daily, the Corps said, and FEMA is paying for emergency construction to repair the levees. They'll only be rebuilt to withstand a Category 3 storm, however, because that's the level of protection currently authorized by Congress. Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane.

About 40 percent of New Orleans remains flooded, down from 80 percent after Katrina struck and protective levees broke two weeks ago.

The bodies of 45 storm victims were found over the weekend at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, which had been surrounded by floodwaters, said Bob Johannesen, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

They died in the four days after the storm while waiting to be evacuated, an assistant hospital administrator told The Associated Press. Temperatures inside the 317-bed hospital got as hot as 106 degrees, and the only way to get people out was by boat.

Many of the patients were elderly and seriously ill, and none expired because of lack of food or electricity, a spokesman for hospital owner TenetHealthcare Corp. told the AP. Some may even have died before the storm, he said.

Some of the recovered bodies had been in the hospital's morgue, but most of them were patients who died in the first four days after the storm hit, while the hospital waited for help, Tenet Healthcare spokesman Harry Anderson said.

It never came.

By Tuesday, he said, the floodwaters surrounding the building had washed out the hospital's generator, cutting off electricity, and temperatures in the facility reached up to 110 degrees.

Doctors and nurses worked around the clock to stabilize the sickest, using hand ventilators to keep patients alive, Anderson said. Some didn't make it.

Hospital officials frantically contacted the National Guard, Coast Guard and state emergency officials to ask for help as the waters rose, Anderson said. Eventually, the third floor was flooded.

"Everybody said, `Be patient. It's going to happen,'" he said.

But on Wednesday, Anderson said, hospital officials were told by the state that they would have to "use their own assets" to evacuate up to 260 patients. The hospital hired boats and private helicopters. The rescue effort was interrupted at one point by gunfire at the helicopters, Anderson said.

"This is a tragic byproduct of this disaster," he said. "People who are frail and vulnerable couldn't survive."

The bodies were taken to a morgue established for Katrina victims in St. Gabriel, La., Johannesen said.

The discovery helped push the Louisiana death toll to 279 on Monday, up from 197 on Sunday. More than 400 people are confirmed dead in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast two weeks ago Monday.

About 250 bodies have been recovered in New Orleans and its immediate suburbs, said Frank Minyard, the Orleans Parish coroner. He expects the death toll to rise as recovery efforts move into deeper floodwaters—but not to the numbers some had feared.

"It's going to grow, but I don't think it will get to 5,000," Minyard said. "I'd be shocked if it does."

Autopsies began Monday at the temporary facility in St. Gabriel. Minyard said most of the bodies are not recognizable.

"The decomposition is bad. Every body is swollen. Every body has decomposition and deterioration," he said. "It's almost impossible to physically identify them. If you have your loved one there, you can't really see them."

Coroners are performing autopsies only on bodies that appear to have suffered trauma, such as gunshot wounds, and on the 26 recovered from a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish because of questions about negligence.

Death certificates for people who appear to have died strictly as a result of the storm will simply be labeled "Hurricane Katrina death," he said.

Brown announced his resignation Monday afternoon, saying he didn't want his ongoing struggles—being removed from command of the relief effort and recalled to Washington on Friday amid questions about his resume—to distract from the relief effort.

David Paulison, head of FEMA's emergency preparedness force, was quickly named his temporary replacement.

In New Orleans, Bush denied that the federal government was slow to respond to the disaster because many of Hurricane Katrina's victims were poor and black. And he called it "preposterous" to claim that rescue and recovery efforts were hampered because military manpower is stretched too thin by the fighting in Iraq.

"The storm didn't discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort," Bush told reporters beneath a highway overpass after a tour in the back of a flatbed military truck. He had to duck at times to avoid hanging branches and power lines.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, now heading the recovery, briefed the president on efforts to provide temporary housing, a day after Louisiana officials accused the federal government of dragging its feet on helping people move out of emergency shelters.

Bush refused to find fault with the government's performance so far, saying, "There will be plenty of time to play the blame game. ... We're moving on. We're going to solve these problems. And there will be ample time for people to look back and see the facts."

For much of his visit, the president sat or stood between two people who harshly criticized the federal government in the days after Katrina struck—New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.

Addressing the long-term future of the city, Bush said, "My attitude is this: The people of New Orleans can lay out what New Orleans ought to look like in the future ... and the federal government will help."

After visiting an emergency operations center in hard-hit St. Bernard's Parish, Bush flew to Gulfport, Miss., where he met with hurricane victims at a church relief center and an elementary school.

He also thanked Mexican troops helping with the cleanup, speaking to them briefly in Spanish.

This was the president's third trip to the Gulf States since the storm, but his first tour of downtown New Orleans. He spent the night aboard the USS Iwo Jima, anchored in the Mississippi River.

Bush avoided answering questions about Brown's resignation, saying he had not spoken with Washington during his trip to the Gulf.

"Here in Mississippi and Louisiana, people want to move forward," Bush said. "There'll be time later to blame somebody."


(Robbins, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported from Baton Rouge. Dodd, of the Charlotte Observer, reported from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Seth Borenstein and Bill Douglas of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, Pete Carey of the San Jose Mercury News, Geoff Pender of the Biloxi Sun Herald, Gary Estwick of the Akron Beacon-Journal, Joyce Tsai of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Gary Dotson of the Belleville News-Democrat contributed to this report.)


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

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

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