Floodwaters receding in New Orleans

Knight Ridder Newspapers

NEW ORLEANS — As floodwaters slowly receded Tuesday, more bodies surfaced and many more are expected, even as a new tropical threat lurked offshore. However, some shafts of light split the grim Gulf Coast reality.

First, the shadow: A storm developing just off Florida’s east coast could strike as a hurricane by this weekend, threatening to further tax a nation already overwhelmed by disaster.

Next, the light: Officials in New Orleans and some other affected areas said water finally began to flow out, relief supplies finally flowed in, order began to be restored, and — here and there — even a hint of normalcy began to sprout.

In Washington, President Bush acknowledged the withering criticism of his administration’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina, said he would lead an investigation into the failures and vowed to build on the progress that emerged in recent days.

“This administration is not going to rest,” Bush said, “until every life is saved, until every family is reconnected, until the recovery is complete.”

The administration will seek $40 billion to 50 billion for the next phase of storm relief, according to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who said the federal share ultimately could reach $150 billion. Katrina will dominate Congress “for the foreseeable future,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Forecasters said the new system, which could become Tropical Storm Ophelia on Wednesday, posed no immediate danger to New Orleans or the rest of the region bulldozed last week by Hurricane Katrina.

But they couldn’t rule out the possibility that, like Katrina, it would cross Florida, enter the Gulf of Mexico and veer toward the already ravaged upper Gulf Coast. Even if it tracked outside the region, it could drain already depleted U.S. emergency-response capacities.

Some neighborhoods in New Orleans dried out Tuesday, but 60 percent of the city remained underwater and more hints emerged of horrors ahead.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, where the search for bodies and survivors intensified, Bill Moore, an urban search-and-rescue expert, said he saw “a handful of bodies, and I’m a guy who’s had minimal time in the water.”

“This is a thousand times worse than I expected,” said Moore, who has 30 years of experience. “It’s just disgusting.”

Patricia Kelly, 41, camped on the porch of a nearby beauty-and-barber shop, waiting to learn if her relatives had been found.

“Family members are scattered all around,” she said. “I hope they’re alive. I just have to believe in the Lord.”

As many as 500 of the 1,700 police officers on the New Orleans force remain unaccounted for eight days after Katrina. It’s unclear whether those officers perished in the storm, are stranded somewhere in the city still without communication or have deserted the force.

“I’m very worried about them,” said Police Superintendent Eddie Compass. “I love my men and women in uniform. They’re like my sheep, I’m their shepherd.”

A day after he raised the possibility of 10,000 deaths, Mayor Ray Nagin again spoke in dire terms.

“It’s going to be awful and it’s going to wake the nation up again,” he said on NBC’s “Today” program.

At least six major fires erupted throughout the city — on both sides of the river, in wealthy neighborhoods and poorer ones. One in the Lower Garden District ate through a city block, devouring the delicate wooden homes that have long given New Orleans its charm.

In nearby Jefferson Parish, firefighters used the pumps on their fire engines to suck in the floodwaters to use against the fires.

Nagin again insisted that all remaining residents leave immediately.

“There’s a health risk,” he said. “There are toxins in the water. There are gas leaks where we may have explosions.”

He said three weeks would pass before the waters fully recede. Debris removal and power restoration will take even longer.

But several streams of good news also appeared, and Nagin said he had a sense that the city had begun to “turn the corner.”

“We are starting to see some significant progress,” he said. “I’m starting to see rays of light all throughout what we’re doing.”