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House-to-house rescues under way in New Orleans

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A rescuer is lowered onto a rooftop to help trapped Katrina victims.

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Nearly a week after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, military helicopters circled above New Orleans on Sunday to drop supplies and rescue people trapped in the nearly deserted city.

The Coast Guard asked anyone still stranded in New Orleans "to hang brightly colored or white sheets, towels or anything else" to help rescuers locate them.

Underscoring the dangerous nature of the operation, a helicopter crashed northwest of downtown New Orleans Sunday evening. The pilot and crew were rescued, said those aboard another helicopter hovering above just after the crash. (See video looking back at a tragic week -- 3:32)

The mangled Super Puma was lying on its side about four miles from downtown. The Coast Guard carried the crew from the scene on another helicopter.

It was believed that the helicopter was a civilian craft that had been participating in rescue operations.

Meanwhile, authorities were able to clear out tens of thousands who took refuge at the Louisiana Superdome and Ernest Morial Convention Center, suffering for days in intense heat with little food or water. (Full story)

Hundreds of people straggled to the two sites from other areas to try to get out of the city.

Some waited inside the convention center, surrounded by the trash and waste left behind.

Chertoff: City must be evacuated

The stinking floodwaters -- now poisoned with garbage, sewage, gasoline and decay -- still trapped hundreds of people in their homes. Some are refusing to leave.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday that the entire city would have to be evacuated.

"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," Chertoff said after arriving in Louisiana.

Louisiana's largest newspaper, the Times-Picayune, published a scathing editorial in Sunday's edition, joining other voices criticizing the federal government's response to the disaster. (Full story)

Declining to answer that criticism, Chertoff said his focus is making sure "we are doing everything possible, as quickly as possible, to prevent further misfortune and loss of life and distress."

"I'm not going to take one minute away from that to answer questions about things which we will have time to visit later," he said.

Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said he will introduce legislation Tuesday that would remove the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security and make it, instead, an independent agency headed by a Cabinet-level executive.

Counting the dead

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Sunday from the New Orleans airport that he has called for hearings on the disaster response. Though things "are running very smoothly," he said, "it took too long to get to this point."

No one has been able to count the dead from Hurricane Katrina's rampage on the Gulf Coast, but Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Sunday that it is "evident it's in the thousands."

Leavitt was the first federal official to give an estimate.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin predicted Sunday that there would be that many deaths in his city alone.

Louisiana emergency officials on Sunday said 59 deaths so far have been confirmed from the disaster in New Orleans, the first official death toll released by the state.

With rescue efforts ongoing and progress made in evacuations, Nagin said, "We have to drain this city."

"I want to make sure these dead bodies get taken out of the water," he said, before mosquitoes spread disease "all over the South."

Already, a team of medical examiners, coroners and funeral directors from across the United States has been formed in Louisiana to process the bodies found.

In Mississippi, the death toll stands at 161, according to the state's emergency management agency, but that toll also is expected to rise.

Meanwhile, with their churches in pieces, the state's faithful found other ways to worship on Sunday. (See video of makeshift worship -- 3:16)

Two altar rails and some folding chairs sitting on an empty floor are all that remain of St. Mark's Episcopal Church outside Gulfport, but about 30 people showed up for services anyway.

Report: Police shoot gunmen

Police shot and killed at least five people Sunday after gunmen opened fire on contractors crossing a bridge to make levee repairs, The Associated Press reported.

Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley told AP that police shot at eight people who had guns, killing five or six.

The incident came as the growing number of authorities attempted to regain control of the flooded city after days of violence and looting that interfered with rescue and recovery efforts.

The Army Corps of Engineers told AP that 14 contractors escorted by police were fired upon while crossing the Danziger Bridge, which spans a canal connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

Corps spokesman John Hall told AP the contractors were on their way to launch barges into Lake Pontchartrain to help fix a breach in the 17th Street Canal.

Initial AP reports had wrongly indicated that the contractors themselves were shot by police.

At the 17th Street Canal, crews worked to close a 500-foot breach of a levee that allowed Lake Pontchartrain to flood parts of New Orleans.

But that breach and another on the London Canal were being left open because water was draining back into the lake. Officials said that once they can get the New Orleans pumping stations running it will take at least 36 days to drain the city.

Mayor: Police, firefighters traumatized

Nagin said Sunday that his top priority was to start moving traumatized police and firefighters out of the city so that they can get medical and psychological treatment.

"They've been holding the city together for three or four days, almost by themselves -- doing everything imaginable, and the toll is just too much for them," Nagin said. (Watch video of the mayor discussing the heavy toll -- 6:20)

Police Superintendent Eddie Compass said that two of his officers committed suicide, including one who had discovered his wife had died.

Compass also said that reports that 60 percent of the police force had deserted was "totally ridiculous."

Authorities still "can't find ways to integrate firefighters offering help from other states," said Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat.

The disaster response, he said, "could have been done a lot better."

Other developments

  • President Bush on Sunday ordered flags at government buildings and military installations across the country to fly at half-staff to mark the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and in memory of Hurricane Katrina's victims. (Rehnquist dies)
  • A city spokesman confirmed an outbreak of dysentery forced the closing of a shelter in Biloxi, Mississippi, where officials said their greatest challenge is repairing the wastewater system and preventing disease. (Full story)
  • Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the military commander in charge of relief efforts, briefed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Baton Rouge on Sunday morning before they were to fly to New Orleans.
  • Offers of support have poured in from all over the world. Many countries have offered condolences and made donations to the Red Cross, including Britain, Japan and Australia, as well as those still recovering from last year's tsunami such as India, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. (Full story)
  • Hurricane Maria formed early Sunday, but forecasters said it likely to remain far off Bermuda and would pose a threat only to shipping. (Full story)
  • Copyright 2005 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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