Grim find in hospital as airport set to reopen

NEW Orleans awaited the reopening of its airport and waterfront yesterday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit, as the coroner planned autopsies on at least 44 patients found dead at a flooded hospital.

The new acting director of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pledged to intensify efforts to find more permanent housing for the tens of thousands of Katrina survivors now in shelters.

“We’re going to get people out of the shelters. We’re going to move on and get them the help they need,” R David Paulison said in his first comments since he was named to replace Michael Brown. Mr Brown resigned under fire over the US government’s response to the disaster.

The exact number of bodies recovered on Sunday from the 317-bed Memorial Medical Center was unclear. A state official said the corpses of 45 patients were found; a hospital administrator said there were 44, plus three on the grounds. It was not clear how they died. The discovery raised Louisiana’s official toll to nearly 280.

Dave Goodson, an assistant administrator at Memorial Medical, said patients died while waiting to be evacuated after Katrina struck, as temperatures inside the hospital hit 41C. He said the heat probably contributed to some deaths. However, Steven Campanini, a spokesman for hospital owner Tenet Healthcare Corp, said some of the patients had died and were in the morgue before Katrina arrived. Also yesterday, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport was scheduled to receive its first commercial flight since Katrina struck on August 29.

The port of New Orleans expected its first cargo ship since the hurricane yesterday and expected at least three more ships by the weekend.

“It’s a historical moment. Two weeks ago, the prognosis was six months, so to pull it off so our customers have enough faith and confidence in us is very heartwarming,” said port president Gary LaGrange said.

The port of New Orleans is the gateway to a river system serving 33 states along the Mississippi River or its tributaries. The port also connects to six railroads.

Business owners were let back into New Orleans on Monday to assess damage and retrieve records and equipment. Some homes will require rebuilding. St Bernard Parish president Henry Rodriguez told displaced residents there is not a structure left standing in Hopedale, south-east of New Orleans. Parish councilman Craig Taffaro said no one should expect to live in the parish again before next summer. Before Katrina, its population was 66,000.

Sergeant John Zeller, a California National Guard engineer, said it will be at least three months before the New Orleans public water system is operational.

Some of those displaced may end up in temporary housing provided by FEMA, which expects to use trailer homes to create ‘temporary cities’, where 200,000 victims could live for up to five years.

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