Federal officials said Saturday that much of New Orleans will be drained by mid-October, nearly twice as fast as originally projected, as the obliterated city showed small but substantive signs of recovery.
Decaying bodies were being collected off the streets amid other signs of slow progress throughout the city, from the restoration of power in the central business district to the reconnection of a main rail link. Water levels slowly receded, exposing the tips of fences and sides of houses that only days earlier were submerged in Katrina's wake. Bulldozers pushed away mountains of debris, and crews removed abandoned cars and trucks.
Police Superintendent P. Edwin Compass III said order has been restored to the same streets where looting and violence were ubiquitous last week. The haunting process of finding, bagging and removing bodies intensified. Boatloads of workers combed through neighborhoods, with cadaver-sniffing dogs pointing the way.
A reporter watched two Federal Emergency Management Agency employees and a half-dozen private workers pick up corpses from a ramp to Interstate 10. One body had lain rotting for at least five days, its outline marked by the black stain of drained body fluids.
The workers, who smeared Vicks VapoRub underneath their noses to suppress the smell, placed the bodies in heavy body bags, zipped them up and carried them away.
One FEMA worker noted how the combination of intense heat and toxic water portend an even messier cleanup of bodies. The overall death count remains to be determined, though officials said earlier fears that the toll could top 10,000 are now unlikely. As of Saturday, officials said there were at least 154 confirmed dead in Louisiana, a small percentage of whom have been identified, and 211 confirmed dead in Mississippi.
The Bush administration said it will not prevent reporters from watching efforts to recover bodies, one day after CNN filed a suit in federal court to protest the restrictions imposed on the news media. The government will not allow photographers to accompany officials during recovery missions, however.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is managing relief efforts for the federal government, said some progress is being made as more pumps are up and running to drain water out of the streets and houses.
"The number one challenge right now is more pumping capacity and to unwater the city of New Orleans," said Allen, after meeting with local leaders to better coordinate the work ahead and to repair relations.
Just east of New Orleans, a company from Baton Rouge was setting up pumps, three so far. It plans to have as many as 30 operational soon, which could remove 900,000 gallons per minute.
Just getting pumps into the region is proving a logistical nightmare, as companies scramble to find barges to ship the machines and fuel to run them.
Allen said most of the city's pumps remain inoperable, complicating recovery efforts. Still, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said water was being removed at a quicker pace than anticipated, which should allow some areas of New Orleans to be drained in less than 40 days.
"We learned long ago not to be too optimistic in times like this. But a few days ago, we were talking about 80 days," said Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, the Corps's chief of engineers, according to the Associated Press.
Allen said that he did not know how many people remain in New Orleans, dead or alive, but that he spent 31/2 hours working on making the removal of bodies as "seamless as possible."
Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish who has been critical of the federal response, said Allen, who on Friday replaced FEMA Director Michael D. Brown as President Bush's point man, should improve relief efforts. "A great decision has been made at the top of this country today, and that is to put a military commander with military experience in charge of one of the most dramatic restorations probably in American history," he said.
Also Saturday, the American Red Cross appealed for 40,000 Americans to sign up as volunteers to assist in the Gulf Coast region, while volunteers, private workers and other officials made their way to ground zero.
Vice President Cheney visited with some survivors gathered at the Austin Convention Center, one day before Bush will make his third visit to the region. Earlier in the day, Cheney told staff at the Texas State Operations Center that "there are a lot of lessons we want to learn out of this process, in terms of what works and how we can do it better."
When asked why he did not return from vacation until Thursday, three days after the storm hit, Cheney said: "I came back four days early."
The public does not seem pleased with Bush's handling of the crisis, according to a Newsweek poll released Saturday. The president's job approval number dropped to its lowest level ever in the magazine's polls, 38 percent, while a majority said they do not trust Bush to make the right decisions in domestic or international crisis. A Time magazine poll put Bush's job approval at 42 percent, also a new low in that magazine's surveys.
In his Saturday radio address, the president said the government and the country will respond to Katrina just as aggressively as it did to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"To accomplish the difficult work ahead of us, our nation will call upon our vast resources and the ingenuity of our citizens, and these will be required in full measure," Bush said.
VandeHei reported from Washington. Staff writer Cheryl W. Thompson in Austin contributed to this report.