Alarming predictions of as many as 10,000 dead in New Orleans may have been greatly exaggerated, with authorities saying Friday that the first street-by-street sweep of the swamped city revealed far fewer corpses than feared.
"Some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred," said Col. Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security chief.
He declined to give a revised estimate. But he added: "Numbers so far are relatively minor as compared to the dire projections of 10,000."
The encouraging news came as authorities officially shifted most of their attention to counting and removing the dead after spending days cajoling, persuading and all but strong-arming the living into leaving the city because of the danger of fires and disease from the fetid floodwaters.
But while the news was encouraging, death lingers in the air. CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports that Londi Moore's lakefront home looks more like a junk yard – her house sits on stilts and the neighbor's house now sits in her back yard.
"There's something dead back here. We don't know if it's a body," Moore said.
Also Friday, the embattled head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown,by the Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen. Brown remains chief of FEMA.
A government source says the decision on Brown was specifically made by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, though he discussed the action with President Bush, who gave his approval, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller.
Also on Friday, FEMA said it will discontinue its program to distribute debit cards worth up to $2,000 to hurricane victims once officials finish distributing the cards this weekend at shelters in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. A FEMA spokeswoman says agency officials decided to switch to direct deposits because it requires less staff.
Ever since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, residents, rescuers and cadaver-sniffing dogs have found bodies floating in the waters, trapped in attics or left lying on broken highways. Some were dropped off at hospital doorsteps or left slumped in wheelchairs out in the open. Mayor Ray Nagin suggested last weekend that "it wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000" dead, and authorities ordered 25,000 body bags.
But soldiers who had been brought in over the past few days to help in the search were not seeing that kind of toll.
"There's nothing at all in the magnitude we anticipated," said Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.
Ebbert said the search for the dead will be done systematically, block-by-block, with dignity and with no news media allowed to follow along. "You can imagine sitting in Houston and watching somebody removed from your parents' property. We don't think that's proper," he said.
Over the past few days, police and soldiers trying to rescue the living marked houses where corpses were found, or noted their location with global positioning devices, so that the bodies could be collected later.
A dozen boats awaiting calls to retrieve bodies were lined up early Friday on an interstate ramp that was being used as a makeshift boat launch. Soldiers also hauled the last of the bodies out of the convention center, which became an increasingly violent and chaotic place before the evacuees were finally removed a week ago.
Still, thousands of stubborn holdouts were believed to staying put in the city, and authorities continued trying to clear them out. Pitts reports that in block after flooded block, many remain defiant.
"I'm not budgin'. The only way they gonna make me move, they gonna have to hog tie me," Freddie Johnson told Pitts.
Police fearing deadly confrontations with jittery residents enforced a new order that bars homeowners from owning guns. That order apparently does not apply to the hundreds of M-16-toting private security guards hired to protect businesses and wealthy property owners.
But there were still no reports of anyone being taken out by force under a three-day-old order from the mayor, and there were growing indications that that was little more than an empty threat.
"We're trying our best to persuasively negotiate and we are not using force at this time — I cannot speak to the future," said city attorney Sherry Landry. "If we find it necessary we will do so. ... We would like to make this a last resort."
In a shift, the military began providing cages to homeowners to allow them to evacuate with their pets. "We got the capacity, and it seemed like the right thing to do," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore.
Across the city, there were signs of hope.
The floodwaters continued to recede, with about three dozen of the 174 pumps in the area working and an additional 17 portable pumps in place. While 350,000 people in the New Orleans area were still without electricity, utilities said some power has been restored to the central business district.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said most of the city could be drained by Oct. 2, but some of the eastern areas of New Orleans and the hard-hit community of Chalmette, across the Mississippi River, could be under water until Oct. 8. Plaquemines Parish, which suffered a storm surge from the coast, could take another 10 days to drain.
The Corps had previously said it could take up to 80 days to drain the city. Friday marked the first time engineers offered detailed time tables.
Authorities said the airport will reopen to commercial flights Sept. 19. Firefighters were heartened to learn that water pressure has begun to return, though the water is still not safe to drink.
The Port of New Orleans plans to resume commercial operations by next Wednesday, reports CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman.
Residents of St. Tammany Parish, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, were allowed to return to their homes to see the damage and clean up. The Postal Service opened 37 offices in several parishes south of the city, though deliveries were still impossible along flooded streets.
Meanwhile, scores of Louisiana National Guardsmen began arriving home from Iraq. About 800 members of Louisiana's 256th Brigade Combat Team volunteered to join the relief effort, while about 1,500 will return to their civilian jobs, if any of those positions are left.
For Spc. Nathan Faust of Chalmette in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, it is a total loss. His family home is flooded to the peak of the roof.
"All my stuff, all my family, everyone's homeless," said Faust, 23. "I want to move out of the city and start over someplace else. I can't put my life on hold for two years and wait for the city to get back on its feet."