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Katrina Death Toll May Not be as High as Feared

By Steven Reinberg and Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporters

SATURDAY, Sept. 10 (HealthDay News) -- Preliminary searches in New Orleans indicate the death toll from Hurricane Katrina may not be as high as initially feared, officials said Friday.

"I think there's some encouragement in what we've found in the initial sweeps that some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred," Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' homeland security chief, told the Associated Press.

Ebbert declined to give an estimate of the dead, the news service said.

As the official search and rescue mission was declared over Friday, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals was reporting the official number of dead around the New Orleans area stood at 118.

But the search for bodies will now take place on a house-to-house basis, and Mayor Ray Nagin had warned earlier this week that the death toll could reach 10,000. State emergency authorities had ordered 25,000 body bags.

Louisiana health officials said they would start a pesticide-spraying program to limit the spread of mosquitoes and flies in the fetid floodwaters of New Orleans.

The main goal is to prevent outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses, such as West Nile virus and St. Louis encephalitis and eastern equine encephalitis. Aerial spraying was to begin Sunday in New Orleans and surrounding areas, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans reported.

Also Friday, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown was removed from his role of managing hurricane relief efforts in the battered Gulf Coast, according to the Associated Press.

Brown, who came under sharp attack from many quarters for his handling of the disaster, is being sent back to Washington, D.C., from Baton Rouge, La., where he was the primary official overseeing the federal government's response to the disaster, the AP said.

Authorities continued Friday to try to convince the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 residents who remain in New Orleans to leave or face forced removal, as health threats continue to plague the beleaguered city.

The first federal testing of floodwaters there revealed dangerously high levels of sewage, with 10 times the safe levels of E. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria, federal officials announced Wednesday.

In light of these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the water unsafe for human contact.

Also Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt began a two-day visit with evacuees in shelters in Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas. Many victims of the hurricane no longer have the records or legal documents to prove their eligibility for benefits from various government programs. President Bush has granted special "evacuee" status to people affected by Katrina that will simplify the enrollment process for programs like Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Head Start, Leavitt said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Mayor Nagin had ordered the forced evacuation of New Orleans residents, nine days after Hurricane Katrina hit, a move that was seconded by U.S. health officials once the test results were revealed.

CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding warned in a teleconference Wednesday that those people remaining in the city needed to evacuate, and rescue workers had to take precautions to minimize contact with the polluted water.

"Our initial findings indicate that counts for E. coli and coliform bacteria greatly exceed EPA's recommended levels for contact," EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said at the Wednesday teleconference. "Human contact with the floodwater should be avoided as much as possible."

The EPA also tested the water for some 100 chemicals, including pesticides and metals.

"Our testing found that lead concentrations in the floodwater exceed what EPA considers safe for drinking water levels," Johnson said. "No one should drink the floodwater, especially children."

Johnson noted that the situation in the hurricane-ravaged city was changing quickly, and water quality may change as the floodwaters recede. So far testing has been confined to residential areas. There has been no testing of industrialized areas, Johnson said.

The Army Corps of Engineers continued to pump out water that had inundated 80 percent of the below-sea-level city, after two broken levees released huge amounts of water from Lake Pontchartrain in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But the health hazards posed by the floodwater were very real, Gerberding said.

"The results from the EPA indicate that the water is full of sewage," she said. "We know that there are many common intestinal illnesses that can be transmitted by ingesting the sewage and, in some cases, by being in the water without protective clothing."

SOURCES: Sept. 7, 2005, press conference, Julie Gerberding, M.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Stephen L. Johnson, administrator, Environmental Protection Agency; Associated Press

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