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Congress OKs massive hurricane recovery bill

Bush outlines plan for $2,000 per affected household

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St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish is surrounded by water. More than 30 bodies were found there.

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Congress late Thursday approved $51.8 billion in emergency spending to pay for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts -- an amount that sets aside roughly $1.4 billion a day for five weeks.

The Senate vote was 97-0. The House passed the bill 410-11.

President Bush signed the legislation Thursday evening and praised Congress for moving swiftly "in strong bipartisan fashion to approve these additional emergency funds."

Earlier Thursday, Bush promised hurricane survivors that the federal government "is going to be with you for the long haul." (See video of Bush's vow -- 8:00)

The president's address, aimed at the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by the storm, came as floodwaters gradually receded and the search continued for survivors and victims.

Bush called for a national day of prayer for the storm's victims and outlined plans to distribute $2,000 in federal aid to every affected household. (Full story)

He also promised to reimburse states for the costs associated with taking in people forced out of their homes by the hurricane.

Two top Republican senators, meanwhile, said they have urged the president to appoint an influential, outside figure to head up the long-term recovery effort.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Bush administration would not necessarily reject such calls.

McClellan said Bush met Thursday morning with Republican congressional leaders and "expressed his appreciation for the Congress moving forward on a joint, bipartisan investigation of the response to Katrina."

McClellan said he was unaware of a threat made by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, not to participate in the investigation unless it is conducted independently. McClellan did not say whether the White House would support an independent inquiry.

Vice President Dick Cheney, his wife, Lynne, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales toured Mississippi and Louisiana Thursday to meet with local and state officials to view the damage. (Full story)

25,000 body bags

Authorities Wednesday began removing the remains of more than 30 people from a flooded nursing home in a suburban parish.

The discovery at St. Rita's Nursing Home in lower St. Bernard Parish came as 25,000 body bags arrived at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. (Full story)

On Thursday, the official death toll from Hurricane Katrina stood at 294, but that number is expected to rise dramatically.

Mortuary teams with refrigerated trucks began arriving Wednesday at the nursing home, where St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stevens said "30-plus" bodies were found. Between 40 and 50 other people were rescued from the facility, Stevens said.

The parish is east of New Orleans, where between 10,000 and 15,000 people are believed to remain in the flooded city, and thousands are feared dead.

Throughout New Orleans and its surrounding parishes, National Guard troops were going house to house to search for survivors and recover the dead -- marking the houses they searched with an "X" to avoid duplication, said Brig. Gen. Michael Fleming, commander of a Florida unit dispatched to New Orleans.

FEMA set up a temporary morgue in the town of St. Gabriel, about 70 miles west of New Orleans.

Another temporary morgue is set up at the intersection of Interstates 10 and 610 inside the city, FEMA spokesman Bill Lehman said.

Meanwhile, recovery teams removed 14 bodies from an evacuated hospital in an eastern neighborhood of New Orleans on Thursday, according to a CNN crew on the scene. Methodist Hospital spokesman Nick Ragone said the bodies were of people who died before the evacuation.

Fighting the floodwaters

The Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday that 37 of the 174 permanent pumps around New Orleans are operational, pumping about 11,000 cubic feet of water per second.

"That's roughly equal to 432 Olympic-sized swimming pools every hour," spokesman Dan Hitchings told reporters.

In addition, 17 portable pumps are working, and another 153 are to be installed, he said. Hitchings said he reported erroneously on Wednesday that the city had a total of 148 pumps.

Work on levee breaches is continuing, he said, with 560 sandbags dropped from helicopters on Wednesday -- "a little bit of aerial ballet," he said. (See latest aerial video of flooded city -- 1:35)

Outside New Orleans, many residents have expressed concern and frustration at the slow pace of the relief effort and the lack of attention to their plight. (Full story)

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told NBC's "Today Show" on Thursday that power will be restored by Saturday. Authorities have confirmed 196 deaths in the state.

While the initial governmental response to the storm has come under widespread criticism, McClellan said more than 70,000 recovery, rescue and law enforcement personnel had descended on the Gulf Coast region by Thursday. (See video on recovery leadership questions -- 2:17)

So far, more than 250,000 people have been evacuated and housed in shelters in 17 states and the nation's capital, he said.

Not safe to stay

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has ordered a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, warning that it's not safe to stay in the city.

The floodwaters are contaminated with sewage, chemicals and decaying corpses. Nagin said those who remained faced the risk of water- and mosquito-borne disease and blazes caused by natural gas leaks.

Police Superintendent Eddie Compass said police would not start the forced evacuations until everyone who wants to leave is out. (Officials: Resistance waning)

"We still have thousands of people who want to get out that can't," he said Thursday night.

He said earlier that police would use "the minimal amount of force."

"We're going to be respectful, talk to people, get counselors in to talk to people," he said. "A lot of people have been traumatized. We're going to do this with sensitivity. They have to understand, this water is polluted, it's dangerous, they could die."

The U.S. Coast Guard will help with those evacuations if needed, Vice Adm. Thad Allen told CNN on Thursday.

Active duty U.S. troops will not participate in forcible evacuations, said Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of the military relief effort.

Other developments

  • Tropical Storm Ophelia reached hurricane status Thursday afternoon with 75 mph winds, according to the National Hurricane Center. The center of the storm was 70 miles east-northeast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The 2005 hurricane season continues to proceed at record pace, with two other hurricanes in the Atlantic -- Nate and Maria -- not considered a major threat to land. (Full story)
  • With oil and gasoline hovering near record highs, many economists are concerned about a potential soft patch for the economy. Calls have increased for the Federal Reserve to pause when it meets on September 20 rather than raise interest rates for the 11th consecutive time. But even if the Fed doesn't boost rates, it may resume later in the year in a bid to ensure that inflation remains in check. (Full story)
  • Louisiana officials rebuffed American Red Cross requests to enter New Orleans with relief supplies last week because of concerns over logistics, Red Cross and state officials said Thursday. (Full story)
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