Crews searching for corpses in New Orleans have discovered the bodies of 45 patients who drowned in a flooded hospital that had been abandoned by the authorities.
The news came as Hurricane Katrina's death toll in Louisiana alone was raised yesterday to 279 from 197 and nudged the overall figure to around 500.
Officials said that the bodies were discovered on Sunday at the 317-bed Memorial Medical Centre, which had been without power since the hurricane struck.
Bob Johannesen, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Hospitals who confirmed the discovery of the bodies, said that he had no further information about them or the abandonment of the hospital.
It was reported that in the first few days after the storm, staff at the hospital struggled to try to keep frail and elderly patients alive as flood-waters rose and looters threatened to break in and steal drugs.
"You could smell death," Command Sgt-Maj Earl Hackney of the Army National Guard told the Times-Picayune newspaper after taking part in recovery efforts at the hospital. "But it wasn't as bad as the floodwaters."
The newspaper said that hospital staff had moved at least a dozen corpses into the facility's chapel and covered them with blankets or else placed them in body bags. Some of the living were moved to the hospital's roof in the hope they could be saved by a helicopter rescue.
Sgt-Maj Hackeny said that security staff had remained at the hospital until Thursday or Friday to protect the corpses which had been scattered throughout the facility. "Everything was done to protect the remains," he said.
Mary Carstens, a New Orleans resident who evacuated herself to the hospital with her husband, a computer systems contractor, said the efforts by staff to help the patients had been heroic as the conditions worsened.
"Nurses stayed up all night, literally, fanning patients with paper or pieces of cardboard just to keep them cool. There were older people lying on the floor on mattresses or right on the floor. Others were manually giving them oxygen for hours at a time," she said.
Without mains electricity once the storm struck, the hospital's emergency generators stopped working the following day, leaving the building without power. The already hot and humid hospital darkened, Mrs Carstens said, and it was almost unbearable to be inside.
Dr Jeffrey Kochan, a Philadelphia radiologist who traveled to New Orleans to help, told the Associated Press that he had spoken with members of the team that recovered the bodies from the hospital. He said they told him they had found 36 corpses floating on the first floor.
"That's what they were talking about last night. These guys were just venting. They need to talk. They're seeing things no human being should have to see," he said.
Bill Berry, a spokesman for Houston-based Kenyon Company, which is assisting with the recovery of bodies, said the largest numbers of corpses were being recovered from hospitals and nursing homes.
The search of wrecked houses is, however, also continuing. They are marked to indicate which have been searched and how many bodiesfound inside.
Despite dire predictions of as many as 10,000 dead in New Orleans alone, it now appears the death toll was considerably lower.Reuse content