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Katrina's official death toll tops 1,000

New Orleans prepares for Rita, but levees still vulnerable

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Searchers from Florida break down a door Wednesday as they search for flood victims in New Orleans.

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KATRINA'S DEATH TOLL

  • Louisiana: 799 deaths
  • Mississippi: 219
  • Florida: 11
  • Alabama: 2
  • Georgia: 2
    Total: 1,033
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    NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- The number of deaths in Louisiana blamed on Hurricane Katrina has risen to 799, the state's Department of Health and Hospitals said Wednesday, bringing the overall death toll to 1,033.

    Mississippi reports 219 people killed in the storm, Florida's toll is 11 dead and Alabama and Georgia each report 2 killed.

    The death toll in New Orleans is expected to increase sharply, as crews are just now getting to some of the areas that were hardest-hit by flooding.

    Searchers are using axes and sledgehammers to break down doors in the city's devastated 9th Ward as they search for bodies inside the mud-caked houses.

    The new death total came as Louisiana prepares for a second hurricane, Rita, which has strengthened to a Category 5 storm -- even more intense than Katrina when it slammed into the Louisiana-Mississippi border on August 29. (Watch the latest on Hurricane Rita -- :57)

    Early Thursday, Rita's maximum sustained winds were at 175 mph, making it a Category 5 hurricane.

    A Category 5 hurricane has winds of greater than 155 mph and storm surges higher than 18 feet, according to the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.

    While the latest extended forecast predicted Rita would come ashore late Friday or early Saturday near Galveston, Texas, forecasters weren't ruling out a hit on Louisiana. (Full story)

    A FEMA official on Wednesday said authorities do not expect Hurricane Rita to result in flooding in New Orleans -- comments that appeared to contradict the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers.

    Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman David Passey said National Weather Service forecasters predict that New Orleans will get 2 to 4 inches of rain, and result in tides of 2 to 3 feet if Rita follows its current projected path.

    He said the Corps was reinforcing repaired levees with sheet metal, and that with those measures "we do not expect additional flooding in the city."

    However, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the Corps' commander, has said crews are doing everything they can to further stabilize the three levees that failed in the aftermath of Katrina, but any substantial rainfall could result in more flooding.

    "We think something on the line of 3 inches over six hours would probably put 2 to 4 feet of water in the lower-lying sections of the city," Strock told CNN Tuesday. "The city has a pump system which is meant to remove precipitation. That pumping system is about 40 percent effective right now. And so it would clearly be overwhelmed by a sizable rainfall event."

    He added: "We are concerned about the weakened state of the levees." (Watch video on the levees' condition -- 2:09)

    Evacuation orders

    To the west, residents of Louisiana's Cameron Parish, which is adjacent to Texas, were ordered to evacuate by 7 p.m. Wednesday (8 p.m. ET), according to the parish's Office of Emergency Preparedness.

    The head of the state emergency preparedness office said Tuesday about 3,000 buses will be available to Louisiana parishes for evacuations.

    Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of federal troops in New Orleans, said Wednesday he was ready for Rita.

    "I got buses, I got troops, I got doctors, I got helicopters standing by," he said.

    "That's what I know, and it's well-organized from that perspective. It still comes up to a person's choice," he said, referring to those who had chosen to ignore mandatory evacuation orders.

    Honore said the joint task force mission was nearing its end stage in New Orleans, barring any further destruction from Hurricane Rita. (Full story)

    Brown to testify

    Michael Brown, who resigned September 12 as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will testify next week as part of a House probe into the government's response to Katrina.

    Brown is scheduled to appear before the committee Tuesday and will testify in part about coordination between federal, state and local governments, said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Virginia, who chairs the special House panel heading the probe.

    David Paulison, director of FEMA's preparedness division, replaced Brown as interim director. (Full story)

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