Katrina Death Toll Over 1,000

Florida Task Force 1 member Jorge Remedios uses a sledgehammer to forcibly enter a house to search for remaining survivors and corpses, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Searchers smashed through doors in New Orleans on Wednesday, bringing their hunt for the dead to homes that had been locked and to blocks hardest hit by Katrina's flooding. Behind those doors, officials said they expected a sharply escalating body count, among them, more children.

The death toll in Louisiana stood at 799 on Wednesday, a jump of 153 bodies since the weekend and nearly 80 percent of the 1,036 deaths attributed to Hurricane Katrina across the Gulf Coast region.

"There still could be quite a few, especially in the deepest flooded areas," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jeffrey Pettitt, who is overseeing the retrieval of bodies. "Some of the houses, they haven't been in yet."

Pettitt and other officials would not speculate on what the final tally could be. They said the effort could last another four to six weeks.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives approved a $6.1 billion package of tax breaks by a vote of 422-0 Wednesday to help families recover from Hurricane Katrina and encourage Gulf Coast businesses to reopen their doors, or at least keep employees on the payroll.

As the body retrieval from Katrina accelerated, the city prepared for a new threat from Hurricane Rita, which was barreling across the Gulf of Mexico toward Texas. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin renewed his plea for residents to get out of the city.

With resources stretched thin in New Orleans, Rita has officials concerned,


"I got buses, I got troops, I got doctors, I got helicopters standing by. That's what I know. I'm happy with what I know. My problem is what I don't know," Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is in charge of the military's effort in New Orleans, tells Alfonsi.

Forecasters don't think Rita will hit New Orleans directly, but even a glancing blow could swamp the city again. Crews are working nonstop to repair the fractured levees. But engineers say they're still too weak, Alfonsi reports.

The Army Corps of Engineers said New Orleans levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.

"The protection is very tenuous at best," said Dave Wurtzel, the Corps official responsible for repairing the 17th Street Canal levee, whose huge breach during Katrina caused the worst of the floods.

While engineers tend to the levees, about 500 people are involved in the search of locked homes, the third and most intense phase of the recovery effort.

Initially, authorities made a hasty sweep through neighborhoods to identify the living and dead. That was followed by a door-to-door search, though locked doors were off-limits.

Previously, they had not entered unless they saw a body or heard someone inside. Now, even a high water mark on the side of a home was enough to allow them to go in.