Soldiers toting M-16s strengthened their grip on this swamped city as concerns grew about the risks posed by the toxic floodwaters and officials braced for what could be a staggering death toll by readying 25,000 body bags.
Across miles of ravaged neighborhoods of clapboard houses, grand estates and housing projects, workers struggled to find corpses and convince the city's last stubborn residents to leave.
"Right now, human life is paramount so I'm concentrating all my power on getting out people who want to leave," New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass told NBC's Today show yesterday.
Searchers were armed with proof of what many holdouts had long feared: The floodwaters are thick with sewage-related bacteria that are at least 10 times higher than acceptable safety limits. The muck contains E. coli, certain viruses and a cholera-like bacteria.
"If you haven't left the city yet, you must do so," said Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She urged anyone coming into contact with the water to scrub with soap and water.
The danger of infection wasn't limited to the New Orleans area. Bacteria are feared to have migrated to crowded shelters outside the state, where many evacuees are staying. Four deaths -- one in Texas, and three in Mississippi -- were attributed to wound infections, said Tom Skinner, spokesman for the CDC.
Officials readied for the potential of a horrendous death toll. Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said officials have 25,000 body bags on hand in Louisiana. Asked if authorities expected that many bodies, he said: "We don't know what to expect."
Already, a temporary warehouse morgue in rural St. Gabriel that had been prepared to take 1,000 bodies was being readied to handle 5,000. The official death toll in Mississippi climbed to 201 Wednesday, but more than 1,000 are feared dead there, too.
Elsewhere, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), stung by criticism that it failed to act fast enough when Katrina hit, was prepared to hand out US$2,000 debit cards for each household affected by the storm. At the Houston Astrodome where many evacuees are being housed, long lines formed to register.
In Houston, refugees were down on Wednesday to a total of 8,096 among four shelters including the Astrodome, US Coast Guard Lieutenant Joseph Leonard said.
The floodwaters continued to recede, though slowly, with only 23 of the city's normal contingent of 148 pumps in operation, along with three portable pumps. The water in St. Bernard Parish had fallen 1.5m.
In related news, the US asked NATO yesterday to take on a bigger role transporting European aid to areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, alliance officials said.
A special meeting of the allies immediately ordered military experts to draw up plans for an expanded role, including the possible use of ships from the elite NATO Response Force.