NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans turned much of its attention on Sunday to gathering and counting the dead across a landscape that could contain thousands of corpses.
“It is going to be about as ugly of a scene as I think you can imagine,” said Michael Chertoff, the nation’s homeland security secretary.
As authorities struggled to keep order, police shot at eight people, killing five or six, after gunmen opened fire on a group of contractors traveling across a bridge on their way to make repairs, authorities said.
Air and boat crews searched flooded neighborhoods for survivors, and federal officials urged those still in New Orleans to leave for their own safety.
The death toll was not known. But bodies were everywhere: floating in canals, slumped in wheelchairs, abandoned on highways and medians and hidden in attics.
“I think it’s evident it’s in the thousands,” Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Sunday.
In the first official count in the New Orleans area, Louisiana’s emergency medical director, Louis Cataldie, said authorities had verified 59 deaths — 10 of them at the Superdome.
“We need to prepare the country for what’s coming,” Chertoff said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We are going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, got caught by the flood.”
Chertoff said rescuers have encountered many people who said they did not want to evacuate.
“That is not a reasonable alternative,” he said. “We are not going to be able to have people sitting in houses in the city of New Orleans for weeks and months while we de-water and clean this city. ... The flooded places, when they’re de-watered, are not going to be sanitary.”
In Sunday’s bridge confrontation, 14 contractors on their way to help plug a breach in the 17th Street Canal were traveling across the Danziger Bridge under police escort when they came under fire, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Police shot at eight people carrying guns, Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley said. None of the contractors was injured, authorities said.
In addition to lawlessness, civilian deaths and uncertainty about their families, New Orleans police officers have had to deal with two suicides in their ranks. These include the department spokesman, Paul Accardo, who died Saturday, according to Riley.
“I’ve got some firefighters and police officers that have been pretty much traumatized. ... They need physical and psychological evaluations,” Mayor Ray Nagin said.
The strain was apparent in other ways. Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, dropped his head and cried on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“The guy who runs this building I’m in, emergency management, he’s responsible for everything,” Broussard said. “His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home, and every day she called him and said, ‘Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?’
“And he said, ‘And yeah, Momma, somebody’s coming to get you. Somebody’s coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody’s coming to get you Thursday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Friday’ — and she drowned Friday night,” Broussard continued. “She drowned on Friday night.
“Nobody’s coming to get her; nobody’s coming to get her,” he said. “The secretary’s promise, everybody’s promise. They’ve had press conferences — I’m sick of the press conferences. For God’s sakes, shut up and send us somebody.”
Hundreds of thousands of people already have been evacuated. With more than 230,000 already in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry ordered emergency officials to begin preparations to airlift some of them to other states that have offered help.
What will happen to the refugees in the long term was not known.
Back in New Orleans, stragglers were checked by Navy medics before they were evacuated. Lt. Andy Steczo said he treated people for bullet wounds, knife wounds, infections, dehydration and chronic problems, such as diabetes.
One person he treated was 56-year-old Pedro Martinez, who had a gash on his ankle and cuts on his knuckle and forearm. Martinez said he was injured while helping people onto rescue boats.
In a devastated section on the edge of the French Quarter, people went into a store with shattered windows and took out bottles of soda and juice.
A corpse of an elderly man lay wrapped in a child’s bedsheet decorated with the cartoon characters Batman, Robin and the Riddler. The body was in a wooden cart on Rampart Street — one shoe on, one shoe off.
Rene Gibson, 42, was driving a truck while hunting for water and ice. He said people are not going to leave willingly.
“People been (here) all their life,” he said. “They don’t know nothing else.”
Amid the tragedy, about two dozen people gathered in the French Quarter for the Decadence Parade, an annual Labor Day gay celebration. Matt Menold, 23, a street musician wearing a sombrero and a guitar slung over his back, said: “It’s New Orleans, man. We’re going to celebrate.”
In New Orleans’ Garden District, a woman’s body lay at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street. The body had been there since at least Wednesday.
By Sunday, a short wall of bricks had been built around the body, holding down a plastic tarpaulin. On it, someone had spray-painted a cross and the words, “Here lies Vera. God help us.”