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Louisiana governor: 'We will rebuild'

Mississippi town hard-hit by Katrina sealed off with barbed wire

Programming Note: Wolf Blitzer anchors live coverage of President Bush's prime-time address from Louisiana, Thursday, 9 p.m. ET.

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Authorities use barbed wire fences Wednesday to surround Long Beach, Mississippi.

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Conditions seemed to be improving in the New Orleans area Wednesday, more than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina ripped across the Gulf Coast, and Louisiana's governor pledged, "We will rebuild."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he will announce a "phased repopulation" plan Thursday that will bring 180,000 residents back into the city in the next two weeks.

Nagin said on CNN's "Larry King Live" Wednesday night the recovery operation "seems to be falling into place" and the death toll in the city will be "a lot lower than expected." (Watch as New Orleans prepares for residents to return -- 1:50)

Elsewhere, the news was not as hopeful. Authorities used barbed wire to cordon off most of the coastal town of Long Beach, Mississippi -- possibly because the area may contain many bodies.

The New Orleans suburbs of Westwego, Gretna and Lafitte in Jefferson Parish, just across the Mississippi River from the city, reopened to residents Wednesday morning, parish officials said.

Electricity, sewage and water service were all working in Westwego, a town of about 11,000 people just south of New Orleans, the mayor's office reported. Gretna's population is about 17,400 and Lafitte's is about 1,500.

Tim Goodwin, owner of the Beau Cheveux Salon in Gretna, found himself cleaning out flood-soaked furniture and carpet from the business he founded in 1991.

"This is my livelihood. This is what I do. I'm 44. Who wants to start over another career, you know?" Goodwin told CNN.

The port of New Orleans also was open, as the container ship Lykes Flyer unloaded its cargo of coffee beans and much-needed plywood Tuesday night, port officials said.

Blanco: 'We will prevail'

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco vowed Wednesday evening to rebuild New Orleans and other devastated areas of her state so more than 1 million displaced residents can come home. (Full story)

In an address to the state Legislature in Baton Rouge, Blanco also had a firm message for anyone suggesting New Orleans should not be rebuilt because of its vulnerability to flooding.

"To anyone who suggests this great city should not be rebuilt, we will rebuild," Blanco said.

She said she wanted "the world to know what we know -- we are brave, we are resilient and we will prevail."

Blanco paid tribute to all those far and wide who had helped in the relief effort. "So long as the Mississippi River flows to the sea, we will never forget your generosity," she said.

While Blanco, a Democrat, has at times been critical of federal relief efforts, she thanked President Bush and called him a "friend and partner" to her state. She also thanked Congress for appropriating billions in relief.

"We cannot rebuild without you," she said, noting she has asked the federal government to cover "100 percent" of what the state spends on the disaster, as was done in New York after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Blanco conceded "there were failures at every level of government, state, federal and local," in the response to the disaster.

"At the state level, we must take a careful look at what went wrong and make sure it never happens again," Blanco said. "The buck stops here, and as your governor, I take full responsibility."

Bush, who will address the nation Thursday night from Louisiana, used similar words Tuesday in taking responsibility for the federal government's failures in the response.

Other developments

  • New Orleans public school teachers received paychecks Thursday, but those checks are the last ones the instructors will see until the city's schools reopen, according to representatives of Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm specializing in crisis management that is working with the school system on restructuring. When the schools will reopen is a question even the school board can't answer. (Full story)
  • In Washington, a Senate committee opened the first hearing Wednesday on relief and response efforts after Katrina. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will look at the disaster response by all levels of government. (Full story)
  • A state investigation was under way Wednesday at Lafon nursing home in New Orleans, where at least 14 patients died as they awaited rescue, officials said. The attorney general of Louisiana filed negligent homicide charges Tuesday against the operators of another nursing home, St. Rita's in St. Bernard Parish, where 34 residents drowned. (Watch the attorney general explain the charges -- 4:23)
  • The head of federal relief efforts in the region said Wednesday that strict protocols will be followed in the recovery of bodies. Remains will be treated with utmost respect and evidence will be preserved that could help identify them, said Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen of FEMA. As of Wednesday, the overall total of confirmed dead stood at 656 -- 423 of them in Louisiana and 218 in Mississippi.
  • The chairman of the former 9/11 commission blasted Congress and the Bush administration Wednesday for inaction on some of its recommendations. "Katrina pointed out serious flaws in our emergency preparedness and response. And what is frustrating to us is that [these are] many of the same problems we saw in 9/11 and the response to that disaster," said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican. (Full story)
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