Grim Task In New Orleans

Airboat pilot Brent Trauth checks the area around Buras, La., in the bayou country south of New Orleans on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005. Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Buras last week. The area is still underwater due to breaks in the levees. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Erich Schlegel) AP/The Dallas Morning News

With the waters receding, New Orleans faces a ghastly task not seen by an American city in perhaps a century: collecting, identifying and then burying potentially thousands of corpses, many of them bloated, decayed or no doubt mangled beyond recognition.

Already, officials said they have 25,000 body bags on hand in Louisiana, and a temporary warehouse morgue is being readied to handle 5,000 dead.

Meanwhile, conditions in New Orleans may be getting bad enough to force even the staunchest holdouts to leave their homes. Michael Keegan of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement says, "Some are finally saying, 'I've had enough.' They're getting dehydrated. They are running out of food.''

There are increasing concerns about the risks posed by the floodwaters. Tests confirm they contain sewage-related bacteria in amounts at least 10 times higher than acceptable limits.

CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts reports that doctors say the city is ripe for an outbreak.

"There are a lot of mosquitoes who are feeding off these decomposed bodies and so we're worried about increased incidence of West Nile," said Dr. James Moises.

Pitts reports that with every rescue, authorities now provide tetanus shots. Still thousands of survivors remain reluctant to leave.

Searchers, including soldiers armed with M-16's, are continuing to make their way through New Orleans neighborhoods. Their task is to persuade the last residents to leave and find corpses.

There are many challenges in the collection of bodies, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann: Identifying the dead, processing the bodies and notifying survivors. Katrina was such a killer that St. Gabriel's temporary morgue could be open indefinitely.

In the confusing tangle of federal, state and local workers here, a preliminary plan has emerged to deal with the bodies.

"The mayor is very strong on the fact that you handle the remains with dignity and respect, especially considering the celebration of life that we have in New Orleans," said Sally Forman, a spokeswoman for Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

Meanwhile, President Bush unveiled a plan to get government benefits to families scattered by Hurricane Katrina and said FEMA would provide $2,000 debit cards so that evacuees can buy food, clothing and personal items.

The president's plan comes as a new revealed that an overwhelming number of Americans say the government response was too slow. The blame is shared by all levels of government.

The government's response to the catastrophe has unleashed bitter political sniping in Washington, with much of the criticism directed against the Bush administration, reports CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras.

"We have witnessed a natural disaster turned into a national catastrophe, by a botched and inadequate response," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., at a hearing Thursday.
  • Scott Benjamin

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