Searchers smashed through doors in New Orleans, 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 even as the overall death toll passed 1,000.
"There still could be quite a few, especially in the deepest flooded areas," US Coast Guard Captain Jeffrey Pettitt, who is overseeing the retrieval of bodies, said on Wednesday. "Some of the houses, they haven't been in yet." Officials said searchers are beginning to find more children.
The death toll in Louisiana stood at 799 on Wednesday, an increase of 153 bodies since the weekend and nearly 80 percent of the 1,036 deaths attributed to Hurricane Katrina across the Gulf Coast region. 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.
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.
At one home, Captain Edan Jacobs of the Miami-Dade Fire Department kicked at a door a dozen times, then used a sledgehammer. The searchers, wearing special masks to ward off the mold and stench, sometimes have to go to three different entrances before they find one not blocked by refrigerators or couches.
Police officers and National Guardsmen stood by, weapons ready, as emaciated dogs circled.
"We try not to destroy the homes, but we have to get inside," said fire department Lieutenant Eric Baum. "Drastic circumstances call for drastic measures."
Many homes are unsafe to enter, while others lay under piles of muck and debris. Some homes are so structurally unsound they are marked, "Do not enter," and seemingly every house has mold growing from every surface.
The difficulty of gauging the number of dead in those neighborhoods will delay a final count for weeks, said Dr. Louis Cataldie, medical incident commander for Louisiana.
"There's some folks out there we can't retrieve," he said.
He said the elderly appear to make up the bulk of the dead but that searchers also are beginning to find more children.
"That's tough," he said.
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.
A mandatory evacuation order was in effect for the entire east bank of the Mississippi, and some 500 buses were standing by at the convention center, but few seemed to be taking advantage. Only one person showed up to be evacuated on Wednesday morning.
The Army Corps of Engineers continued pumping the water left behind by Katrina and readying the city's fractured levee system, in case the new storm took a sharp turn and targeted Louisiana. Engineers warned residents that the patched-up levees can only handle up to 15cm of rain and a storm surge of 3m to 3.6m.