NEW ORLEANS -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency stockpiled 25,000 body bags to prepare for the collection of the dead in New Orleans, and the mayor said yesterday that he would force thousands of holdouts to leave the crippled city.
As fire crews fought a rash of blazes in battered downtown and fouled flood waters were linked to three deaths in the region, Mayor C. Ray Nagin had this message for residents: Get out now.
The mayor said police were immediately authorized to use force to remove those who would not leave voluntarily.
''We have thousands of people who want to voluntarily evacuate at this time," said Police Chief Eddie Compass. When those people are gone, he said, authorities would turn their attention to mandatory evacuation.
Despite Nagin's order, the National Guard continued delivering food and water to those who remained behind.
''Our understanding is that the mayor doesn't have the authority to direct us to remove people," said Major Steve Nixon, an officer with the 45th Infantry brigade of the Oklahoma National Guard, which has 5,000 soldiers working in Orleans Parish.
In the state capital, Governor Kathleen Blanco called for a moment of silence in memory of the thousands who are believed to have perished.
She also said it was time to begin to rebuild Louisiana's economy and infrastructure, which were flattened by Hurricane Katrina's fury.
''It's as though one region of the state has been erased," she said.
FEMA Director Michael D. Brown, who has been assailed by many Democrats, and some Republicans, for a bungled federal hurricane response, said he would not quit.
''The president's in charge of that," he said. ''I serve totally at the will of the president of the United States."
City officials said the threat of fire and spreading disease made it necessary to order a mandatory evacuation. But as they pressed residents to leave, there was resistance and frustration.
In the Garden District, where damage was limited and the streets are dry and nearly empty, people who were still living there didn't understand why they had to leave.
Angel Matthews, 61, said the apartment she shares with two men has water, but no electricity or phone service. She said no one had ordered her out, and that troops were giving her bottled water and food.
''We've made it this far. Why go now?" said Matthews, who was wandering the streets, looking for cigarettes as well as an asthma inhaler.
But others, like Marel Vasquez, who has spent more than a week with no power or water, decided it was time to leave. Vasquez, 34, slept on the floor of his family's clock shop on Gravier Street, downtown, to prevent looters from wrecking the place.
''I think it's safe to go now. I'm going," said Vasquez, whose Pontiac sedan was laden down with clothes. He sped off for Baton Rouge.
Guard soldiers were strongly urging residents to seek safe haven outside the city, but National Guard Brigadier General Michael Fleming said his soldiers would not force residents out unless asked to by the governor.
Art Jones, director of the state's disaster recovery office, said the ultimate authority for forcing residents from New Orleans lies with Nagin, who has estimated that as many as 5,000 to 10,000 residents remain.
The state, Jones said, is not going to forcibly remove anyone.
''For their own common sense, they should get out as quick as they can," Jones said. ''I'm afraid the longer they wait, the worse it's going to be."
In the field, soldiers were balancing the desire to clear the city with the impulse to help the stricken.
''They're Americans, too. We are not going to deprive any American of the necessities of life," said Captain John Sherrill of the Oklahoma National Guard. ''But by the same token, we're going to encourage them to find sustainment elsewhere."
At the city's convention center yesterday, people arrived at a pace of about a dozen every five minutes for evacuation. They were brought in New Orleans police vans, National Guard trucks, ambulances, and buses. At the convention center, they were given bottled water, and were frisked for weapons and contraband, before being escorted to buses that carried them out of the city. More than a dozen New Orleanians interviewed on their way out said they were leaving voluntarily.
US Environmental Protection Agency officials released the first water quality test results from the city's residential neighborhoods, showing that the flood waters contain levels of lead, e. coli, and fecal coliform bacteria 10 times their safe limit in water.
Three people may have died from a fast-moving infection after open wounds on their bodies came in contact with the reeking water, federal officials said. The deaths, announced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appear to be from saltwater-borne bacteria known as Vibrio vulnificus that may have entered the city with the billions of gallons of flood waters.
As for the victims, the federal government has hired a private contractor from Houston to begin collecting corpses. Brown said each day it will be able to handle 500 to 1,000 bodies, which will be stored in refrigeration trucks in St. Gabriel until they can be buried.
A FEMA spokesman said news crews are being asked not to photograph the dead out of respect to their survivors.
State officials said the latest estimate for total damage from the storm is $100 billion. Other estimates have been double that. In any case, Jones said Katrina will be the costliest disaster in American history.
Nine days after the monster storm, as crews from the Army Corps of Engineers continued to pump putrid flood water back over the protective levee ruined by the hurricane, the storm's repercussions still reverberated powerfully.
Area residents with running water were being warned to boil it. Some 319,000 victims have applied for relief from FEMA. Twenty-three of the city's 148 pumps were working. An extra 160 were on hand, but just three of those extra machines pumped water yesterday.
National guard troops patrolling New Orleans were being told to take note of where bodies were so they could be collected later, and in some cases rescue workers tied bodies to fences until there was time to return for them. FEMA and state officials confirmed that FEMA had 25,000 body bags on hand in Louisiana. ''It's an effort just to be prepared," said Bob Johannessen, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
Blanco said the state's tourism, banking, and agricultural industries have been brought to their knees. Transportation, education, and social service agencies have been severely disrupted.
''We were at the epicenter of a natural disaster of global proportions," she said. ''Now we're ready to go into the building phase."
She said all of the nation's governors have promised to send help. And the state will need all the help it can get.
''Rebuilding our communities will be tough, but it has to happen," she said.
Vast swaths of southeastern Louisiana remained without electricity. There are 53,377 displaced citizens in 69 state shelters, and 78,923 others in out-of-state shelters from Arizona to Arkansas. Some 22,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen are now in 13 Louisiana parishes.
School superintendents in the hardest-hit areas have no idea when classes may resume, but that probably won't happen for a year.
More military help is on the way, officials said, including the USS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship, which is expected to arrive by the end of the week.
Jones said $200 million in federal disaster relief is being disbursed to Orleans and surrounding parishes pummeled by the storm. FEMA has plans to distribute debit cards worth $2,000 per household. Vouchers for food and housing are expected by week's end.
Engineers inspected 90 bridges that may need repair. Contractors are being hired to haul away mountains of debris.
With thousands of public safety personnel continuing to pour into the city, the state has generated color-coded, laser-generated maps that show southeastern Louisiana's elevation, accurate to within inches.
''The problems created by the hurricane are so immense that we have many well-meaning people responding, but most of them don't know anything about New Orleans," said George L. Gele, an architect with the state Department of Transportation and Development. ''This will allow them to focus on an exact address, whether on foot, in the air, or on the water."
Gele, a New Orleans native, said he and other state officials simulated storms like Katrina for three years in a row, the last one just a month ago.
''A lot of people said it would never happen, and a month later, here we are," he said, crediting officials in Mississippi with helping to shape and execute evacuation plans. ''We got thousands out with their help. I don't know what the body count is going to be, but it could have been much worse. Whenever this is over, in a year or two, we're going to have a picnic on the state line and just hug each other. Because we need it."
Globe reporters Raja Mishra in New Orleans, Beth Daley in Boston, and Bryan Bender in Washington contributed to this report, and information from wire services was used. Thomas Farragher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org