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Rescuers finding the dead—and the diehards—in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS—All that's left in this city now are the dead and the die-hards—the residents who refuse to leave their beloved, but beleaguered, homes.

Rescue workers went door to door on foot and by boat Tuesday, desperately trying to persuade the living to leave. Other teams set out to continue retrieving the dead, a process with no end in sight.

The confirmed death toll from Hurricane Katrina rose to 83 in Louisiana on Tuesday, but officials have warned that the number could reach into the thousands.

The identification process hasn't begun on the victims, said Bob Johannessen, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. He said families eventually would be asked to provide materials to help identify bodies. Fingerprints, photographs, X-rays and DNA samples will be used throughout the process.

But on Tuesday, search rescuers continued to run across the living. In the Ninth Ward, where homes are still under water, rescue workers found an obese woman on her porch, lying on her belly, unable to walk. She refused to go with them.

"Get her out of there," Sgt. Billy Gomillion, of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement, ordered his men. "If she is sick and cannot move—I don't care whether she wants to or not—get her out of there. I'm not going to let her die."

Chris Baker, a Metairie, La., schoolteacher and a volunteer rescuer with a boat, said he and other volunteers had to talk an elderly man into leaving the area.

"He was afraid he was going to be placed in some kind of concentration camp. We had to convince him he was a free man," Baker said.

Gomillion said his unit took about 150 people from their homes on Tuesday. Many more—including 25 to 30 elderly neighbors, some in wheelchairs—vowed to stay.

Residents don't realize that the floodwaters won't recede in some parts of the city for six to eight weeks, Gomillion said. If they remain in their homes, he said, they could die.

Six other people who refused to be taken from a bridge "felt this thing was an act of God and it was OK to just sit there and die," Baker said. "They were in God's hands."

Meanwhile, with a fresh supply of body bags, sterilized gloves and refrigerated trucks, recovery teams ratcheted up efforts to collect the dead.

Capt. Michael Pfeiffer, with the operations bureau of the New Orleans Police Department, said agencies were concentrating their searches in the hardest-hit areas of New Orleans—the low-income neighborhood of the Ninth Ward, the upscale homes in Lake Front and Lake Shore, and in New Orleans East.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life," said Bill Moore, a 30-year urban search-and-rescue expert from California, as he waited to board a search boat in the Ninth Ward. "This is a thousand times worse than I expected. It's just disgusting."


(McDonald and Douglas report for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sarah Bahari of the Star-Telegram contributed.)


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

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

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