NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Hurricane Katrina’s death toll across the Gulf Coast climbed past the 1,000 mark yesterday, with the body count in Louisiana alone reaching 799.
The new figure of 1,036 was released as New Orleans braced for the outside possibility that Hurricane Rita, swirling across the Gulf of Mexico toward Texas with 150 mph winds, could swamp the city’s damaged levees and inflict new misery on the Big Easy.
Two busloads of people left town on Tuesday, but only one person showed up at the convention center yesterday to catch a bus out, despite Mayor Ray Nagin’s mandatory evacuation order for the estimated 400 to 500 residents left in neighborhoods on the hard-hit east bank of the Mississippi River.
“The majority of people who are back in the city came with their own vehicle. We expect them to go out in their own vehicle,” said Spc. Amber Mangham, an military police officer stationed outside the convention center.
The forecast called for Rita to keep its distance from Louisiana and hit the central Texas coast by the weekend.
Still, the Army Corps of Engineers rushed to fortify the Katrina-fractured levees in case the storm took a sharp right turn.
Engineers warned that the patched-up levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.
“The protection is very tenuous at best,” said Dave Wurtzel, a Corps official in charge of some of the repairs.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency and told Louisianans to pray for a break from Rita.
The death toll in Louisiana rose from 63 to 736, the state Health Department reported.
Army Corps spokesman Mitch Frazier said the city was only about 10 percent flooded, down from 80 percent, with just isolated ponds left in sections of the city.
In one area of eastern New Orleans, near the Six Flags amusement park, the floodwaters were still 4 to 6 feet deep.
Rita’s renewed threat to the levees forced the mayor to suspend the phased reopening of the city.
“It’s pretty sad. We came home to find out half the neighborhood burned down, now we have to leave again,” said Darryl Robichaux. “No telling what we’ll find when we finally get back again.”
Keith Price, a hospital nurse who stayed through Katrina and found himself wading to safety through chest-deep water, planned to leave town this time.