First body sweep eases 'dire' fears 10,000 died

AUTHORITIES yesterday said their first systematic sweep of New Orleans found far fewer bodies than expected, suggesting that Hurricane Katrina's death toll may not be the catastrophic 10,000 feared.

"I think there's some encouragement in what we've found in the initial sweeps that some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred," said Terry Ebbert, New Orleans homeland security chief.

He declined to give a new estimate of the dead.

Authorities turned their attention to counting and removing the dead in a grid-by-grid search of the city after spending days cajoling, persuading and all but strong-arming the living into leaving the shattered city because of the danger of fires and disease from the filthy, corpse-laden floodwaters.

"Numbers so far are relatively minor as compared to the dire projections of 10,000," Mr Ebbert said.

Mayor Ray Nagin had suggested over the weekend that the death toll could climb that high, and authorities ordered 25,000 body bags as they started gathering up the dead across a landscape awash in corpses.

Separately, Major General Bill Caldwell, commanding general of 82nd Airborne Division, said the last of the bodies at the convention centre would be taken out now.

Thousands took shelter there after the hurricane for days with little or no food or water, in what became an increasingly chaotic and violent situation.

At two collection sites, federal mortuary teams gathered information that might help identify the bodies, such as where they were found. Personal effects were also being logged.

At a temporary morgue set up in nearby St Gabriel, where 67 bodies had been collected by yesterday, the remains were being photographed and forensic workers hoped to use dental X-rays, fingerprints and DNA to identify them.

Dr Bryan Patucci, coroner of St Bernard Parish, said it may be impossible to identify all the victims until authorities compile a final list of missing people.

Decaying corpses in the floodwaters could pose problems for engineers who are desperately trying to pump the city dry.

While 37 of the 174 pumps in the New Orleans area were working and 17 portable pumps were in place yesterday morning, officials said the mammoth undertaking could be complicated by corpses getting clogged in the pumps.

"It's got a huge focus of our attention right now," said John Rickey of the Army Corps of Engineers. "Those remains are people's loved ones."

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