Meanwhile, US President George W Bush began his second trip to the region since the storm hit, landing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to start another inspection tour and consult with federal and local officials.
“All levels of the government are doing the best they can,” Mr Bush said in Baton Rouge. “So long as any life is in danger, we’ve got work to do.”
Traffic began moving into Jefferson parish, west of New Orleans, at about 6am local time (12pm Irish time). A curfew was set for 6pm, and residents were told they could stay until Wednesday.
Among those returning was Diane Dempsey, a 59-year-old retired US Army lieutenant colonel who stopped at the water’s edge less than a mile from the house where she grew up and where her aunt lives.
“I’m going to pay someone to get me back there, anything I have to do,” she said, sobbing while standing amid boats beached on Veterans Highway. “A lot of these people built these houses anticipating some flood water but nobody imagined this.”
Most of the single-story bungalow homes in her neighbourhood had water nearly to the rooflines. Homes in the most exclusive neighbourhood of the parish, Old Metaire, had little structural damage but some of the worst flooding. Along rows of palatial, six-bedroom homes, a few windows were broken and the live oaks survived but the water rippled up to front-door knobs.
A week after the storm, a definitive death toll remained elusive. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin warned that “it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have 10,000” dead. Despite the grim estimate, he was more upbeat than in previous days, when he railed against the federal government and broke down sobbing during a radio interview.
Army Lieutenant General Russel Honore said that fewer than 10,000 people remained in the city, based on aerial reconnaissance. “This is not a city under siege. This city needs help from the big people in America and its technology to get back on its feet.”
On Sunday, as authorities struggled to keep order across New Orleans, gunmen opened fire on a group of contractors on a bridge, rescues of stranded residents continued and the flood waters began to recede, leaving the grisly task of collecting bodies.
Violence boiled over in New Orleans when 14 contractors on their way to help plug the breach in the 17th Street Canal came under fire as they travelled across a bridge under police escort, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. Police shot at eight people carrying guns, killing five or six, Deputy Police Chief WJ Riley said. None of the contractors was injured, authorities said.
Besides the lawlessness, civilian deaths and uncertainty about their families, New Orleans’ police have had to deal with suicides in their ranks. Two officers took their lives, including the department spokesman, Paul Accardo, who died Saturday, according to Mr Riley.