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Katrina death toll rising in Louisiana

Adam Nossiter Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS – In a day of reckoning across battered New Orleans, the owners of a nursing home were charged in the deaths of dozens of patients killed by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters, the death toll in Louisiana jumped to 423, and the mayor warned that the city is broke.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the city was working “feverishly” with banking and federal officials to secure lines of credit through the end of the year, but for now, it is unable to make its next payroll.

Amid the discouraging news, there were also clear signs of progress on many fronts: The New Orleans airport reopened to commercial flights, the port resumed operations, and the mayor said dry sections of the ravaged city – including the French Quarter and the central business district – could be reopened during the daytime as early as Monday, provided the Environmental Protection Agency finds the air is safe.

“We’re out of nuclear-crisis mode and into normal, day-to-day crisis mode,” Nagin said.

Entergy-New Orleans said it had restored power to 75 percent of the 1.1 million customers that were out at the height of the storm. And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said most of the military’s search and rescue work was complete.

The death toll from Hurricane Katrina climbed more than 50 percent in a single day Tuesday to 423, including last week’s grisly discovery of 34 dead patients and staff members at St. Rita’s nursing home in the town of Chalmette in hard-hit St. Bernard Parish.

In the nursing home case, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti charged the husband-and-wife owners of St. Rita’s with 34 counts of negligent homicide for not doing more to save their elderly patients.

“The pathetic thing in this case was that they were asked if they wanted to move them and they did not,” Foti said. “They were warned repeatedly that this storm was coming. In effect, their inaction resulted in the deaths of these people.”

Salvador A. Mangano and his wife, Mable, were released on $50,000 bond each.

Their attorney, Jim Cobb, said his clients were innocent.

Cobb said they followed the nursing home’s evacuation plan that had been filed with officials, and he blamed the St. Bernard Parish officials for not ensuring the plan was proceeding.

“They sat and waited for a mandatory evacuation order from the officials of St. Bernard Parish that never came,” he said.

Cobb said the Manganos were forced to make a difficult decision as the hurricane approached: evacuate the patients, many of them elderly and on feeding tubes, or keep them comfortable at the home through the storm.

“If you pull that trigger too soon (on evacuation) those people are going to die,” Cobb said.

Tammy Daigle, a nurse who worked at the home, also said the owners had been worried about trying to evacuate some residents of the home who they knew wouldn’t survive the move.

Tom Rodrigue, whose mother was among the dead, was still angry and near tears.

“She deserved the chance, you know, to be rescued instead of having to drown like a rat,” he told CNN.

In addition to St. Rita’s, the attorney general said he is investigating the discovery of more than 40 corpses at flooded-out Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. A hospital official said the 106-degree heat inside the hospital as the patients waited for days to be evacuated probably contributed to the deaths.

Even though the airport and waterfront were running at just a fraction of their capacity, the symbolic importance was not lost on a city that only days before had all but collapsed into looting and desperation.

“From a commercial and psychological standpoint, this is five stars,” port president Gary LaGrange said between an outgoing barge shipment of auto parts to Alabama and the arrival of a ship carrying coffee and wood from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. “This shows the people of New Orleans their city is back in business.”

Some experts had predicted it would take up to six months to get the port operating again after the hurricane damaged terminals and knocked out the electricity to operate cranes. A backlog of vessels had formed along the Mississippi River, waiting to load and unload cargo.

The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, which escaped widespread damage from Katrina but was reserved for humanitarian flights in the storm’s aftermath, received its first commercial arrival, a flight with about two dozen emergency workers and returning residents.

“Welcome home,” airport director Roy Williams said as he greeted the passengers. “We’re glad to see you.”

Airport officials hope to be up to 60 flights a day within the week and back to full operation of 350 flights a day in six months. Before Katrina hit, the airport was on pace for a record 10 million passengers this year.

During a tour of hurricane-stricken Mississippi, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta pronounced Katrina the worst disaster for transportation in U.S. history and estimated the damage to bridges and highways – including broken and disjointed stretches of vital Interstate 10 – at $3 billion.

The Army Corps of Engineers reported significant progress running the operation to pump out flooded areas of New Orleans and neighboring parishes.

Col. Duane Gapinski estimated that half of the flooded area or less was still under water, and at the rate of 8 billion to 9 billion gallons a day, the city was on target to be almost completely drained by Oct. 8.

The mayor said more than 40 pumping stations were operating in the city, including the city’s biggest pump.

“That will change the world as we know it,” he said.

Amid the encouraging signs from the streets, there were promises from the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to learn from their mistakes and intensify efforts to help the victims.

In Washington, Bush said “I take responsibility” for the government’s failures in dealing with the hurricane, and he said the disaster raised questions about the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks.

“Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack? That’s a very important question and it’s in the national interest that we find out what went on so we can better respond,” the president said.

The new acting director of FEMA, R. David Paulison, also promised to get thousands of evacuees out of shelters and into temporary housing.

“We’re going to move on and get them the help they need,” Paulison said in his first public statements since taking over the job.

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