Residents already planning to return as forced evacuation goes on

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The Independent US

Police and National Guard units began the delicate task of prying the most reluctant New Orleans residents from their homes in the devastated city yesterday, doing what they could to talk them into leaving before resorting to force.

With the toxic flood waters only receding inch by inch – only one-fifth of the city's pumps are up and running - authorities are determined to carry out a complete evacuation and avert the risk of a major outbreak of disease. They face, however, a daunting challenge from residents who either feel they have nothing left to lose, or else live in the dry part of the city and want to start the process of bringing the city back to life immediately.

The authorities were quick the characterise the holdouts, estimated to number as many as 10,000, as people losing their grip on reality. "It's getting to the point where they're delirious," Coast Guard chief petty office Jason Rule told reporters after pulling just 18 people from their homes. "A couple of them don't know who they were. They think the water will go down in a few days."

The threat of forced evacuation has, however, brought out a stubborn streak in what has always been a ruggedly independent city. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of displaced residents have made it clear they want to go back right now and revive New Orleans before the federal government or anybody else can make any sweeping decisions to bulldoze and abandon vast swathes of their home city.

"I'm hearing that the water is coming back on, and the electricity. They're not going to be able to write us off that easily," said Ron Graham, a restaurant manager and French Quarter resident who returned to the New Orleans area yesterday from a three-week stay with his mother in Ohio. "They keep talking about the threat of disease, but how many people have gotten sick so far? I'm not buying it."

Residents of New Orleans suburbs, unlike those in the city centre, are slowly being allowed back, at least to retrieve their belongings. Residents of Jefferson parish returned on Thursday, and Tammany parish followed suit yesterday. Electricity and other basic services are slowly being restored in those areas.

That, in turn, could make it difficult for the New Orleans authorities to get too tough. City police chief Eddie Compass vowed yesterday to use only the "minimum amount of force".

Overshadowing the evacuation issue is the deep, and spreading mistrust of all governmental authority following the spectacularly failed response to Katrina in the vital first few hours and days. Colin Powell, the Secretrary of State in the first term of the Bush administration, yesterday became the latest high-ranking figure to express both dismay and surprise at the woefully inadequate response.

"I think there have been a lot of failures at a lot of levels - local, state and federal," he told ABC television. "There was more than enough warning over time about the dangers to New Orleans. Not enough was done. I don't think advantage was taken of the time that was available to us, and I just don't know why."

In Washington, congressional Democrats poured scorn on a proposal that the administration conduct an investigation into itself, saying they would refuse to participate in anything less than a proper independent commission similar to the one that investigated the governmental missteps in the run-up to the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Administration critics continued to turn up the heat on Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as Time magazine reported that the political appointee may have embellished what few qualifications he had for the job in the first place. In his official biography, Mr Brown claims to have been responsible for emergency management in Edmond, Oklahoma, in the late 1970s, but a spokeswoman for the city told Time he had been little more than a trainee, with no departmental responsibility for anything.

In another biography posted at a legal website, Mr Brown is cited as an "outstanding political science professor" at Central State University in Oklahoma. But university officials said yesterday he was a student there, not a professor.

Mr Brown has been the object of scorn and ridicule, not least because his job for 10 years before joining the Bush administration – which he left under a cloud - was to administer the International Arabian Horse Association. Critics charge that his only real qualification for FEMA was to have been the college room-mate of the previous director, Joe Allbaugh, who was in turn a senior aide to then-Governor Bush in Texas.

Rage at the government goes well beyond Mr Brown, however. While touring ravaged areas in Mississippi on Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney was confronted by a heckler who told him several times to "go f*** himself" – an echo of a line Mr Cheney himself uttered on the Senate floor last year to a prominent Democratic Senator.

In Houston, evacuees expressed fury at the latest FEMA failure – to provide each family with $2000 debit cards as promised. The Red Cross has taken over that responsibility, but has only $360 to hand out per person.

In New Orleans, meanwhile, the authorities were just at the beginning of the grim process of collecting and identifying dead bodies. Just 67 corpses have been admitted to a makeshift morgue in the suburb of St Gabriel. Thousands of people are believed to have died in all.