Four days after the hurricane hit, the death toll from the Katrina disaster remained elusive Friday in the devastated flood zone of southeastern Louisiana. But it seemed increasingly apparent the body count would exceed several hundred, and fears persisted that it would mount into the thousands.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who toured the area with President Bush, told reporters here in the state capital that the death toll could reach many thousands. But he cautioned that he had no official reports, and there was no word from any Louisiana state agency of an official toll for New Orleans or surrounding areas.
Mississippi officials put their deaths at 147 and rising. Scattered deaths in other southeastern states also may be linked to Katrina.
Shellshocked Louisiana officials said they were more concerned about saving the living than counting the dead. The Department of Homeland Security said the Coast Guard and other emergency responders had saved at least 7,000 lives in search and rescue operations in Mississippi and Louisiana.
But that figure begged the question of how many people had not been saved, especially elderly or indigent residents trapped for days in attics, on roofs or elsewhere with dwindling food and water supplies and a growing threat of disease.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Thursday night in an online edition that 100 people had died while waiting with a much larger crowd to be rescued from a flooded area of Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish. The information was attributed to Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who said he was told this by people in the crowd.
Asked about the report, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) told CNN: "I cannot confirm that for you. There is nothing that would surprise me . . . because of the depth of the tragedy and the seriousness and the vastness of the situation."
Asked on Wednesday to estimate his city's dead, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin had said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands." In a subsequent radio interview, Nagin urged faster federal relief. "Every day that we delay," he said, "people are dying, and they're dying by the hundreds, I'm willing to bet you."
On blogs and news wires, there were isolated death reports that no state agency had yet tallied. One person apparently died when a bus carrying refugees overturned, the Daily World of Opelousas reported.
By Friday, a firm death figure emerged from one suburb of New Orleans: Jefferson Parish. An official there said the morgue had received 196 bodies within two days, including many from hard-hit Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.
"Many of them are drownings; some of them were crushed by falling trees, some impacted by flying debris," Walter S. Maestri III, Jefferson Parish emergency manager, said in a telephone interview.
Maestri said his counterparts in New Orleans and other parishes feared deaths would mount in coming days. "As the water remains, as the heat rises right now, as the dead bodies and dead animals in this water begin to decay, we have the potential for really, really serious problems," he said.
At an emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, state Sen. Walter J. Boasso (R) estimated that 100 people had died in his district in low-lying St. Bernard, Plaquemines and St. Tammany parishes. Some bodies, he said, were roped together.
"There must be some good Samaritan who is gathering them up and tying them together so we can dispose of them appropriately," Boasso said.
Anderson reported from Washington.