Federal officials opened a vast morgue to collect the dead and health officials scrambled to create a health care network to help the living, while states across the country struggled to find housing and other provisions for the more than 1 million people driven from their homes by Hurricane Katrina.

Although the storm's announced death toll was just over 200 on Monday, officials began to brace themselves and the public for a body count that could reach well into the thousands.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it had closed gaps in levees damaged by the hurricane and had begun pumping water out of the city and into Lake Ponchartrain. The flood in the swamped Ninth Ward had dropped by a foot, and downtown streets were wet instead of inundated.

The vast scope of the calamity triggered by the storm was still emerging. officials estimated that more than 1 million people -- many of whom fled with only the clothes on their back and a few prized possessions stuffed in a bag -- have been forced from their homes, most likely for many months.

Amid mounting recriminations about the slow pace of the government response to the calamity unleashed by last week's storm, President Bush visited the stricken area for the second time in four days, and his administration appointed a federal official to assume control of recovery efforts in storm-ravaged New Orleans.

Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff tapped Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen to coordinate the government's relief efforts in the city. Allen will report to beleaguered FEMA Director Michael D. Brown, who will keep responsibility for the rest of the Katrina-affected Gulf Coast region.

Bush also declared a state of emergency in eight states -- as far away as Utah and West Virginia -- bringing to 13 the number eligible for special federal aid as a result of the hurricane.

Federal agents, troops and law enforcement officers from around the country continued to pour into New Orleans, and police officials expressed confidence the city was mostly safe from the marauding gangs that had terrorized citizens in the storm's chaotic aftermath.

The rapidly growing scale of the effort was evident in the official statistics of federal personnel involved as of midday Monday: 38,000 National Guardsmen, 6,000 FEMA responders and 4,000 from the U.S. Coast Guard, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship, pulled into New Orleans port Monday and will assist in aid efforts.

Across the state, doctors and nurses worked feverishly to cobble together a new health care network, transforming abandoned stores, basketball arenas and other spaces into hospitals to treat the hurricane's victims.

The relief effort even grew to include counterfeit clothes, 100,000 items of which were taken from U.S. Customs Service storehouses and distributed to evacuees in Houston's Astrodome. Two cruise ships anchored in Galveston, Tex., were to begin taking on evacuees as well -- as many as 2,600 each.

About 990,000 customers remained without power Monday because of Hurricane Katrina, the Energy Department said, down from 1.3 million on Sunday.

Allen's appointment in New Orleans came as the president moved to reassert his leadership in the wake of withering criticism about what many local officials and residents saw as his administration's lethargic response to the deadly storm. Bush made his second visit since Friday to the devastated region, talking to evacuees in a church-run shelter and meeting with disaster-relief officials in Louisiana before speaking to emergency personnel in Poplarville, Miss.

"I understand the damage. I understand the devastation. I understand the destruction. I understand how long it's going to take," Bush said in Mississippi. "And we're with you. That's what I want you to know."

As Bush visited the region, rescue workers continued their search for survivors. As choppers maneuvered overhead, rescuers trolled debris-strewn city streets in flat-bottom boats, going house to house, peering in windows and knocking on doors in an effort to evacuate the estimated 10,000 New Orleans residents thought to still be in the city.

Often, they found people who refuse to leave.

Keith Edwards, a rescue worker from Arkansas, tried in vain to talk an elderly woman into abandoning her home in a public housing complex not far from the Superdome. Sitting at a table in her darkened apartment, the woman refused his offer to be evacuated by airboat. "Hon, you don't know how dangerous this is?" Edwards said. ". . . the water out in your front yard will kill you."

One New Orleans police officer said the search was still focused on the living. "We're going up to buildings looking for people," said the officer, who said he was not authorized to speak on the record. "When you break the window and the smell comes back at you, you know they're dead." And they move on. "You just can't worry about the dead right now," he explained.

But other workers are. The bodies of those left dead in Katrina's wake were scheduled to start to arrive Monday in a massive warehouse outside Baton Rouge. Lifted from the fetid waters swamping this city, they will be transported in refrigerated trucks to the temporary morgue. A similar morgue has been set up in Mississippi.

As officials forged ahead with the recovery work, Bush spent the day near the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast. Some critics said the impression of a slow federal response to Katrina was only deepened by the president's visit to the region last week, during which Bush seemed tentative in his comments and was kept away from some of the most dire misery spawned by the storm.

Some civil rights leaders have questioned whether the response to the storm was hindered by the fact that many of those most severely affected are poor and black -- a charge dismissed by federal officials. In the face of the growing denunciations, senior administration officials have fired back by blaming local officials for the inadequate response to the hurricane.

Bush seemed intent on rising above the finger-pointing during his visit, saying that "all levels of government are doing the best they can" to restore order and to address basic needs of the storm victims.

"So long as anybody's life is in danger, we've got work to do," Bush said. "That's why I want people to be assured we're going to do it."

Bush posed for pictures with children and talked with several of the 800 people staying at Bethel World Prayer Center in Baker, a few miles north of the Baton Rouge airport. Some asked the president about the growing use of the word "refugee" to describe them.

"A refugee is a prisoner of war or something," said Paulette Jolla, a New Orleans who left before the storm hit. Also in on the conversation was Terry Thompson, 42, of New Orleans, who said the president agreed to urge officials to start referring to those who escaped the storm as "displaced citizens."

"I don't know who came up with the term 'refugee' anyway," said Thompson. "He said if that term was making us feel like we were less, he didn't want to do that."

Thompson, who served in the National Guard in the Persian Gulf, said the military should have been called upon earlier to bring in helicopters to help evacuate residents and deliver food and water. "He's going over there to save the Iraqis and all that," Thompson said. "But he responded terribly to this tragedy."

Others were more charitable. "It's good that he came," said Iris Henderson, 38, who is at the shelter with her daughter and one grandchild. "People said he doesn't care but it seemed like he does. He showed that he's human. He's trying to do what he can."

Among those joining Bush on his visit to the shelter were the Rev. T.D. Jakes, who is one of the nation's best known African American religious leaders; Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), first lady Laura Bush, Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin L. "Kip" Holden and Chertoff.

As Bush visited the region, some residents of Jefferson Parish were allowed to return briefly to their homes for the first time since they were forced to flee. A line of vehicles miles long began moving into the parish west of New Orleans at about 6 a.m.; officials planned to allow traffic in for 12 hours, though they encouraged residents to inspect their property, pick up personal items and leave.

Mississippi officials said the situation in the state was improving -- slowly. The availability of fuel continued to be "a significant problem" in some areas, said Gov. Haley Barbour (R), but, overall, he said, things were getting better.

Fletcher reported from Washington. Staff writers Robert E. Pierre in Baton Rouge, La., and Marc Kaufman, Spencer S. Hsu, Susan B. Glasser and Shankar Vedantam in Washington contributed to this report.

A man wades a street still flooded in New Orleans. Officials said some major breaches in levees had been repaired and water was being pumped out of the city. Carolyn Gordon and Johnny Harris say they do not want to be evacuated out of their homes in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. About 10,000 are estimated to remain in the city, despite pleas to evacuate.Helicopters, trucks and boats were visible throughout New Orleans in attempts to reach holdouts and those missed in earlier evacuations.