13:31 12 September 2005 NewScientist.com news service Jeff Hecht New Orleans is staggering back to its feet after the catastrophe wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The floodwaters are being drained, the airport is set to resume commercial flights and business owners are being allowed to return briefly to their workplaces.
The most encouraging news is that emergency workers going house-to-house have found fewer bodies than expected. On Sunday the official death toll in the two hardest-hit states, Louisiana and Mississippi, passed the 400 mark.
But that still makes Hurricane Katrina the most deadly storm to hit the US since modern hurricane tracking enabled storm warnings, after World War 2. But the final death toll is expected to reach thousands and it is unknown how many bodies may have washed away.
Pumps are running in New Orleans and its surrounding areas, and the Army Corps of Engineers now expects to get the water out of low-lying areas surrounded by levees earlier than expected. On Friday, Corps officials estimated central New Orleans would be drained on 2 October, and the eastern part of the city would be drained by 8 October.
Ten more days will be needed to drain the levee-enclosed areas along the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, which is between New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi. The Corps has also begun covering damaged roofs with tarpaulins and clearing debris in areas where flood waters have drained away.
Reconstruction experts The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International airport, on relatively high ground west of the city, is set to open to commercial flights on Tuesday. The airport had been open since 30 August, the day after Katrina hit, but only for government and emergency traffic.
Two airport concourses will continue to house sick evacuees, but troops and other emergency workers who have been sleeping in two other concourses will be moved to other sites. With the airport open, engineers and reconstruction experts from other areas can fly in to start planning rebuilding operations.
On Monday, New Orleans will allow business owners and operators into the central business district for the first time. But it will only be for a few hours, so they can recover the vital records, such as payroll data, needed to resume operations elsewhere. The business district is now largely dry.
Ophelia poised Meanwhile Hurricane Ophelia, the 15th tropical storm of the season, is hesitating off the coasts of Carolinas. It is expected to hit North Carolina early this week.
Tropical storm warnings are in place along parts of the Carolina coast, and North Carolina ordered evacuation of low-lying coastal islands. But early on Monday the US National Hurricane Center´s most likely predicted path showed it only grazing North Carolina before heading north along the coast.
Ophelia has lurked for several days off the Atlantic coasts of Florida and Georgia, with its intensity fluctuating just above and below the hurricane threshold. The NHC predicts it is most likely to remain only a Category 1 hurricane until Tuesday at least. Katrina reached Category 5 – the strongest – just before devastating the Gulf Coast at Category 4 strength.