EPA: New Orleans air putrid but not overly polluted

Thursday, September 15, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- The putrid air rising from New Orleans' slowly receding floodwaters was found Wednesday not to be overly polluted, encouraging news for a mayor weighing the reopening of the French Quarter and other dry parts of the city.

Mayor Ray Nagin had said a clean bill of health for the air would allow the tourist-friendly French Quarter and central business district to reopen as early as Monday. And while the Environmental Protection Agency still found the floodwaters contained dangerous levels of sewage-related bacteria, the air pollutants were determined to be at acceptable levels.

As the grim cleanup continued, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco took responsibility Wednesday for failures and missteps by the state government in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She pledged to remake New Orleans better than before the storm.

"To anyone who even suggests that this great city should not be rebuilt, hear this and hear it well: We will rebuild," she said, addressing a meeting of state lawmakers in Baton Rouge.

About 40 to 50 percent of the city was still flooded, down from 80 percent after Katrina hit, as 53 permanent and temporary pumps worked to siphon off 8 billion gallons a day.

The body count in Louisiana alone climbed to 474 on Wednesday, and it was expected to rise further as state and federal officials went about the tedious task of collecting bodies and then using DNA to identify them.

"It's going to take months, maybe years," said Dr. Louis Cataldi, the coroner for Baton Rouge Parish. "This is not going away."

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, head of the federal hurricane response, outlined the procedures for body collection, including readings of ecumenical prayers and ceremonial washing of bodies in accordance with various religious traditions.

"This is a very, very sensitive process," Allen said. "We are mindful of the dignity that needs to be accorded to these remains."

The state attorney general's office said all of its investigators have been pulled from other tasks to work on the Medicaid Fraud Unit, the team whose work led to Tuesday's negligent homicide charges against the husband-and-wife owners of a Chalmette nursing home where 34 elderly residents drowned in floodwaters.

Kris Wartelle, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Charles Foti, said the office has been besieged with allegations of neglect that may have led to injuries or deaths at nursing homes and hospitals.

But Louisiana District Attorneys Association President Peter Adams said he would be surprised if such incidents were widespread. "What we've mainly seen in heroism," he said.

In Washington, Senate Republicans scuttled an attempt by Sen. Hillary Clinton to establish an independent, bipartisan panel patterned after the 9/11 Commission to investigate what went wrong with federal, state and local governments' response to the hurricane.

Separately, a Senate committee opened a hearing on the disaster, with the panel's Republican chairwoman saying that changes instituted after Sept. 11 in the government's emergency-preparedness failed their first major test during Katrina.

With billions of dollars to boost disaster preparedness at all levels of government, "we would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response."

President Bush prepared to travel to the state Thursday to deliver a prime-time televised speech to the nation.

Louisiana Transportation officials estimated Wednesday that about 1.2 million people were evacuated from the metro New Orleans area in the two days leading up to Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall, many of those people still scattered in other states.

A day after Nagin said the city is essentially broke, New Orleans' already beleagured school system announced it would also need federal assistance to keep paying its teachers. The last paychecks were being made available at Western Union locations to 7,000 employees spread across the nation, but after that $13 million is doled out, the system will be out of money.

"The cash situation is dire," said William Roberti, with Alvarez & Marsal, a restructuring firm that has been working with New Orleans' public schools.

Across a shattered city, the most obvious sign of progress came in the form of flickering lights. About 168,000 customers were still without power in the New Orleans area, mostly in places still flooded, but that number had gone down 10,000 in a day.

"I can tell you the numbers are going to go by slowly because we've reached the flooded areas," said Morgan Stewart, a spokesman for Entergy Corp.

The Hibernia Corp., Louisiana's oldest bank whose landmark building was once the city's tallest, turned on its lights at sunset Wednesday. The bank is well-known for the colors that light up the building's cupola during the holidays.

Associated Press writers Adam Nossiter, Brett Martel, Mary Foster, David Crary and Lisa Meyer contributed to this report.

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