Officials Say Pace of Finding Bodies In Mississippi Slowing

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) -- Even as military and civilian contractors stepped up excavation Monday in Biloxi's most devastated neighborhood, emergency officials predicted the pace of finding corpses along the Mississippi Gulf Coast would continue to slow.

Mississippi's death toll stood at 215. Only one body of a Hurricane Katrina victim was found during the weekend, in Hancock County.

Joe Spraggins, emergency-management director in neighboring Harrison County, said that two weeks after the storm, crews are finding fewer bodies each day and he doesn't expect another spike in numbers.

''Once we start the debris removal, we'll probably see some additional bodies,'' Spraggins said. ''How many, I don't know. I hope just a few.''

President Bush made on Monday his third trip to hurricane-ravaged areas, telling reporters in Gulfport that there are a ''lot of lives to be lifted up, lot of hope to be restored.''

In Biloxi, contractors began at the waterfront edges of Point Cadet, the largely blue-collar neighborhood of Vietnamese fishermen, casino workers and families who trace their roots to eastern Europe. Many tried to ride out the storm in 50- to 80-year-old homes. Despite early recovery efforts, contractors have been told to expect more bodies.

''It would be going faster, but as they dig, they're always looking,'' said Fred Fayard, a contractor whose crews began their first full day of work Monday. ''If they see a foot, a hand, any body part, or if they smell something, we stop.''

Firefighters stood watch at excavation sites throughout the neighborhood watching for any discovery.

''This right here is utter devastation,'' said Sgt. Johnnie McAdory, an Army reservist from Noxapater whose unit served more than a year in Iraq. ''That over there was a walk in the park.''

Many of the homes on the Point were narrow, wooden, single-story houses. They were nicknamed ''shotgun homes'' because a single shell fired through the front door would carry straight out the back door.

Katrina flattened these homes. Brick front steps lead to nowhere. Bathtubs and shingles often are the only clues that houses once stood.

''The biggest thing for me is to remember this is somebody's property. This is somebody's life,'' said petty officer Tony Bush, a naval officer from Virginia who bulldozed houses out of the street Monday, away from leaky natural gas and water lines.

The Rev. Dong Phan of the Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church said nobody in his parish has been confirmed dead. He said most of the neighborhood would stay despite losing so much.

The Vietnamese arrived here in the late 1970s, he said. They had nothing and had to build a life from scratch.

''They have each other,'' he said. ''It's like at the beginning.''

As residents returned to their homes, many former fishermen and car dealers went to the casino area where they were hired for cleanup jobs. Others began work rebuilding or salvaging their homes, despite not having power or water.

''The residents are coming back now,'' said Capt. Dave Williams, a firefighter from Biloxi. ''They're calling us up now, saying 'I've got a bad smell' or 'I found a body.'''

Gov. Haley Barbour has been releasing Mississippi's death-toll numbers during briefings most days in Jackson.

''The governor established early on the criteria that the official count will come once the death certificates had been issued,'' said Barbour's spokesman, Pete Smith. ''We depend on our commissioner of public safety to get that information from the coroners.''

While the federal government is spending billions of dollars on hurricane response in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, Bush said as the Mississippi communities are rebuilt, ''they're going to be rebuilt by the people from Mississippi.''

U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said federal and state agencies need to exchange information. Before the state Department of Transportation can set contracts to replace the destroyed bridges joining Bay St. Louis to Pass Christian and Biloxi to Ocean Springs, the Coast Guard needs to let the state know how much clearance is needed under the bridges, Taylor said.

Spraggins said one of the biggest challenges in the next few days will be finding places to put thousands of mobile homes and travel trailers that will be used as temporary housing. He said efforts will be made to let homeowners put mobile homes on or near their own property. Emergency officials also are looking for spaces to establish mobile home parks.

Pass Christian alderman Joseph Piernas said his town, with a population of 8,500 people, needs temporary housing for 8,200 people. He estimated that between 50 and 100 families are now living in the town but everybody else is evacuated to shelters, motel rooms and private homes further inland.

Mississippi Gaming Commission director Larry Gregory said he and commission chairman Jerry St. Pe are traveling to Las Vegas this week to meet with casino executives about the companies' plans to rebuild along the coast. Most of the 12 casinos in Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis were heavily damaged, as was the 13th casino that originally was to open this month.

''We just kind of want to sit down eye to eye and look at them and see if they are gong to commit to rebuilding,'' Gregory said. ''They have told us verbally, all of them, that they are going to rebuild.''