NEW ORLEANS – The desperate 11-day mission to rescue the living evolved Friday into a laborious, house-by-house search for the dead – even as hope emerged that Hurricane Katrina’s toll may be far lower than the 10,000 predicted by the mayor.
“Some of the catastrophic deaths some people have predicted may not have occurred,” said Col. Terry Ebbert, the city’s director of homeland security. “The numbers, so far, are relatively minor as compared with the dire predictions of 10,000.”
The comments came as Michael Brown, the embattled director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was relieved of his on-the-ground duties and recalled to Washington.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who had been in charge of the relief operation in New Orleans, assumed Brown’s regional oversight of the recovery effort. Last week, President Bush told the FEMA director, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” but critics blasted the federal response as slow and disorganized and called for Brown’s dismissal.
Friday evening, FEMA suffered another embarrassment: The agency said it would cancel its plan to distribute $2,000 debit cards to each dislocated family, though the cards still would be given to evacuees in Texas this weekend.
In other developments, oil industry experts said gasoline prices could remain above $3 per gallon for the rest of the year while home-heating-oil costs could soar by as much as 70 percent, and Bush prepared to make a third visit to Katrina’s sprawling impact zone.
The official death toll stood at more than 300, but most experts have suggested that Katrina probably killed thousands of people, many as they waited for rescue.
Ebbert said initial sweeps of the city suggested that fatalities may be more limited, although a full assessment must await completion of the “long, tedious” search for bodies that will include every structure.
Police and the military will look for bodies, identify where they find them, tag them with a GPS device, and alert FEMA body-retrieval crews to the locations. FEMA crews will take the bodies to a temporary morgue in St. Gabriel, northwest of New Orleans, for identification.
Authorities now believe that everyone who wants to be removed has been. Meanwhile police and soldiers urged the relatively few remaining holdouts defying the city’s mandatory evacuation order – an unknown number probably below 10,000 – to get out of a city that remained largely under contaminated water.
“We are strongly encouraging those people still in the city not directly associated with the recovery operation to leave, for their safety and for our safety,” said Sherry Landry, New Orleans’ city attorney. “At this time, force is not being used.”
But persuasion certainly was.
Lucille Hechley, 64, of 1358 Magazine Street, said she wasn’t budging. But in the end she was no match for the kind persistence of Staff Sgt. Juan Almonte of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
Hechley lived her entire life in the dilapidated wooden structure. Now, it’s also home to her two dogs and a cat. And they’re doing just fine, she said, without food, water or electricity.
“I don’t walk off and leave animals astray,” Hechley told Almonte as a tiny dog licked her face.
His response: “You’ll have free food, free water and free medical attention. And a place to stay. It’s going to take a long time for this city to get back on its feet. So I’ll be back at 9 tomorrow. You be ready.”
She said she would, so long as she could bring her pets. He assured her that she could.
Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, responsible for the military presence in New Orleans, said troops were being given animal cages to help encourage people with pets to leave. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.
In house after house, National Guardsmen tapped on doors and peeked through windows. Firefighters and paramedics from New Jersey found a dead woman, wrapped in a carpet and plastic bags, in a pickup truck in New Orleans East.
An attached note provided her name, date of birth, Social Security number, “and that she died of an apparent heart attack,” said firefighter John Ciccio of Manchester, N.J.
“This place is just crazy,” he said.
For the first time since the storm, the city’s downtown saw meaningful cleanup efforts. Soldiers used chainsaws to chop up trees in medians and cleaning crews swept up the broken glass that littered most downtown streets.
Crews with leaf blowers cleaned the plaza outside one downtown bank, and electricity was restored to some buildings.
Landry, the city attorney, said officials hope that power will be restored throughout the downtown area and all streets will be cleared of debris within a week. That will allow workers to return to offices and recover vital data and other material.
“We are working 24-7 to make that happen as quickly as possible for you,” Landry said.
An estimated 350,000 people still are without power in the region, an Entergy executive said, almost all within the metro New Orleans area. It could be months before residents of many submerged New Orleans neighborhoods see the light.
Southeast of New Orleans, a thick layer of oil covered entire neighborhoods and canals in the Louisiana townships of Mereux and Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish. A Murphy Oil Corp. refinery is in the area. An 85,000-barrel crude oil tank floated off its foundations and buckled along a seam as it settled back down.
Mindy West, Murphy’s director of investor relations, said the spill wouldn’t damage the area “any more than the floodwaters.”
On the economic front, Royal Dutch Shell confirmed that, by the end of the year, it might restore only 60 percent of its pre-Katrina production of offshore crude oil. The company is the largest U.S. oil producer in the Gulf of Mexico.
That suggests that crude oil prices could remain above $60 a barrel, unthinkable months ago, and gasoline prices could hover around $3 a gallon for the rest of the year.
Two things could bring gasoline prices down – a significant drop in demand from U.S. motorists or a surge of additional gasoline imports.
“That’s wishful thinking,” said Phil Flynn, an oil analyst with Alaron Futures and Options in Chicago, which trades oil contracts for future delivery. “More than likely $3 (a gallon) is going to be around for awhile.”
Earlier in the week, the Department of Energy warned that home-heating costs could spike 71 percent in some parts of the country because of the damage.
In Washington, the White House said that Bush would visit the storm-ravaged area Sunday and Monday, his third trip there since Katrina hit.