Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is warning Americans to be prepared for what he calls an "ugly scene" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. T
The secretary's comments referred to the flooded city of New Orleans, where receding waters are revealing corpses of victims, which officials say could number in the thousands.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said there will be more grisly signs of Katrina's devastation in the days to come: "I think we need to prepare the country for what's coming. What's going to happen when we de-water and remove the water from New Orleans is, we are going to uncover people who have died, maybe hiding in houses, got caught by the flood, people whose remains are going to be found in the streets. There is going to be pollution. It is going to be about as ugly a scene as you can imagine."
He spoke on "Fox News Sunday." His colleague, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, had no exact figures, but he told CNN he believes the death toll will at least be in the thousands.
Mr. Leavitt said, "I don't have a number. No one has a number at this point. It's clear to me that this has been a sickeningly difficult and profoundly tragic circumstance. And our goal now has to be to mitigate it and to help those who have been affected in a way that will allow them to get their lives back and to prevent further tragedy."
Most of those who died were either killed by the storm or succumbed while waiting to be rescued. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin Sunday said some people had actually committed suicide.
One of the luckier survivors was Bobby Lane. He and his family had tried to ride out the storm in a neighbor's attic: "We looked out the ventilation of the attic, and we saw the water about a foot from the attic. Man, the women asked, what was going on? So, we had to lie to them and tell them something different. You know what I'm saying? We didn't want to get them upset. It was a horrible sight, I'll tell you that."
This was the type of situation also described by Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, who said she feared many more people drowned in their homes.
While touring some of the hardest-hit areas for the ABC television program "This Week," she emphasized the area's importance to the United States: "We supply the seafood, we supply the oil, we supply their goods through our ports. We're proud of it, we are a proud people, and we're good people. But their infrastructure, our infrastructure, is devastated. Their lives are in shatters. The region is torn to pieces."
The last 300 evacuees left New Orleans Superdome Saturday night. The facility had housed some 20,000 hurricane survivors.
On Sunday, power companies planned to send trucks into the city to assess storm damage. National Guard troops would provide an escort.
The Bush administration has come under sharp criticism from New Orleans residents, among others, for not responding to the hurricane disaster more quickly.
Secretary Chertoff acknowledged that the federal government has learned lessons from its actions in the initial days following Hurricane Katrina. But he said the immediate emphasis is on recovery efforts: "We're going to go back and look at the entirety of this experience, as unprecedented as it was, at the appropriate time. But as I've said earlier, we are in the middle of the experience. We are in the middle of the emergency. We've got a lot to do in the next hours, days, weeks and months. We're going to get focused forward because, if we don't, then we're going to start having problems in the future."
After nearly a week of chaos following last Monday's storm, Mr. Chertoff added that the federal government is now in control of New Orleans.
Top U.S. officials have gone to the region, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who called Hurricane Katrina a "natural disaster of historic proportions"
"The president has also pointed out, properly, that this is not something that is a one or two or five day arrangement, or weeks or months. It is something to cope with and deal with -- it will take many, many, many months and into years for this area to recover into the circumstance that it was in."
President Bush toured the region Friday, and is expected to return within days. On Sunday, he spoke from the headquarters of the American Red Cross: "The world saw this tidal wave of disaster descend upon the Gulf Coast, and now they're going to see a tidal wave of compassion."
He said this "tidal wave of compassion" included 5000 Red Cross volunteers, who were working at shelters in 19 states that have accepted evacuees.