Hurricane Deaths May Be Fewer Than Expected

NEW ORLEANS -- U.S. President George W. Bush was to make his third trip to the region emerging slowly but surely from the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina on Sunday, the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Towns and cities along the U.S. Gulf Coast lay broken, hundreds of thousands of families were homeless, and the search for the dead continued, but there were signs of hope even from New Orleans, where officials had feared the death toll could be up to 10,000 but now expected it to be much less.

"We'll be well. We can do it," remarked Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. "I see signs of hope all around us. Lights are coming on, and things are happening all around."

Officials in Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, said they would lift a mandatory evacuation order for some areas on Sunday.

New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport will reopen to passenger traffic on Tuesday and was already open for freight traffic.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said on Saturday it would take half the time originally thought to pump New Orleans dry -- 40 days, not 80. Of the city's 174 pumps, 74 were operating, sucking water poisoned with chemicals, gasoline and sewage out of the below-sea-level city.

By boat and on foot, firefighters, soldiers and trained mortuary teams worked, prying open doors and cutting their way through walls across the city searching for the dead. They have found bodies and even survivors, still clinging to life where they had been trapped since the storm smashed levees that had held back Lake Pontchartrain.

While the house-to-house searches could go on for weeks, early evidence suggested that most people had been able to flee before the water rose too high or were rescued from their rooftops before they ran out of food and drinking water.

"I thought there would be thousands of dead, but it seems it's a lot less," said Staff Sergeant Jason Geranen of the 82nd Airborne Division.

In Louisiana, the official death toll stood at 154. Mississippi, the other hardest-hit state, had 211 confirmed killed. There were also fatalities, though many fewer, in Alabama and Florida.

Bush, hit by criticism for his administration's response to the storm, prepared to return to the devastated region for his third and longest visit. It will include an overnight stay with stops in both Louisiana and Mississippi.

The trip comes on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, an early crisis in the first Bush term that united the nation behind the the president. He was seen as decisive in the face of those attacks, but four years later the White House was dealing with a natural disaster that has cost Bush support.

A Newsweek poll found his approval rating at its lowest yet -- 38 percent. The survey found that 53 percent of Americans no longer trusted the president to make correct decisions in a foreign or domestic crisis, compared with 45 percent who did.

The White House has dispatched a host of top officials, from Vice President Dick Cheney to members of the president's Cabinet, on almost daily trips in the past week to the Gulf Coast to see the storm damage but also to blunt criticism that the administration was unaware of the depth of the crisis and slow to respond.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's much-maligned chief, Michael Brown, was abruptly recalled to Washington last week and relieved of direct supervision of the hurricane recovery efforts.

With the rising cost of Katrina and concerns about the price tag, which is estimated to be between $100 billion to $200 billion, polls indicated Americans wanted the White House to do more. A new Time Magazine survey found that 61 percent of Americans believed the United States should cut spending on the war in Iraq to help pay for rebuilding the Gulf Coast region.

An estimated 1 million people have been displaced from their homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama since Katrina hit on Aug. 29.

FEMA said it had distributed $688 million in aid to displaced families. The money went to nearly 268,000 households in Louisiana, 52,000 in Mississippi and 12,000 in Alabama.

The American Red Cross said it had received $503 million in gifts and pledges for hurricane relief and had been able to provide 6 million meals and operate 675 shelters in 23 states. Many survivors were moving from shelters to temporary apartments across the country until they could return home. But some say they will never go back.