Forensic workers broaden search for bodies; cleanup work intensifies in battered New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS – The crew in white jumpsuits and blue gloves carried a body bag out of the empty senior center. Then another bag, then another, eight in all.There was no one left alive at Bethany Home, a century-old brick building fronted by white columns. A piercing siren wailed through building’s open doors and windows, echoing through the surrounding neighborhood of tall oak trees and grand 19th century homes. Federal agents watched the repeated procession of corpses.It was a day to bring out more of the dead killed by Hurricane Katrina.Such scenes played out across New Orleans on Saturday as teams of cadaver dogs and boatloads of forensic workers fanned out to collect bodies.Just down the road from Bethany Home, bags were needed for two bodies that laid on opposite sides of Bayou St. John, near the grand stone entrance of City Park, in the heart of New Orleans. Authorities also called for three bags at a partially submerged interstate ramp that’s become a boat launch.The confirmed death toll in Louisiana stood at 154 people, including some patients on life support who died when power went out, but the toll was expected to climb as crews collected bodies trapped in houses and floating in murky floodwaters.Police and military officials have been marking the location of bodies with global positioning devices and paint on the outside of houses.The crews recovering corpses came from a group of volunteer medical professionals called in by the federal government for disasters. They processed the bodies and took them away in refrigerated trucks.The experts have set up a field morgue in St. Gabriel, a tiny community between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where a chain-link fence shrouded in black plastic now stands near City Hall, hiding the operation from onlookers.Officials were processing bodies around the clock. “The ability to capture useful information from that body diminishes from week to week, month to month,” said Terry Edwards, director of the morgue.But amid the collection of the dead were clear signs of life. Around the city center, crews began cleaning the mounds of trash and other debris strewn by the hurricane and by fleeing residents.Bulldozers pushed heaps of chairs, sleeping bags and other discarded items into giant piles at the convention center, the chaotic site where thousands initially took refuge before being evacuated a week ago. Dump trucks were hauling the debris away.Tow truck drivers started picking up scores of abandoned cars littering the streets; other workers unloaded food and supplies for employees working in Bell South’s downtown office.At the Parc St. Charles hotel, workers went floor to floor cleaning up. “There’s lot of spoiled meat, a lot of bacteria that needs to be cleaned up,” said Bob Allen, who was supervising the job.At the Superdome, where thousands first sought shelter only to be trapped inside by the floodwaters, water levels had dropped markedly. Water that once submerged cars parked around the dome had dropped to about a foot high.A group of police, doctors and National Guardsmen inspected Charity Hospital, where doctors and patients had been stranded in rising floodwaters.Doctors hoped to be able to reopen it to help treat skin infections, dehydration and other illnesses, said Dr. Jeffrey Kochan, who is overseeing medical services in New Orleans. But they found the basement full of water, meaning electricity couldn’t be restored. Kochan said they would also inspect the city’s other hospitals.The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said most of the city could be drained within a month, though some areas hit by the storm surge could take longer. The estimates are far shorter than early predictions by the corps, which has struggled to get breached levees repaired and pumps operational.”We learned long ago not to be too optimistic in times like this. But a few days ago, we were talking about 80 days,” said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the Corps’ chief of engineers, who was in Vicksburg, Miss.Power and other utilities are still unavailable in most of the affected region. More than 427,000 customers lack electricity, and 500,000 have no phone service, state officials said.—Associated Press writers Don Babwin, Erin McClam, Kevin McGill, Jessica Bujol and Mary Foster contributed to this report.Vail, Colorado
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