NEW ORLEANS – Hurricane Katrina wrecked entire neighborhoods, but federal and local law enforcement agents were finding neither human life nor death in house-by-house searches Friday in one of the most traumatized parts of New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward.

Search parties, entering the sludge-covered district for the first time since the water drained away, used battering rams to enter front doors, or broke through glass with batons. The homes were left open after the searches.

“There is some evidence from what we have found in initial sweeps that catastrophic death may not have occurred,” said Terry Ebbert, director of Homeland Security for New Orleans. “The numbers so far are relatively minor compared to the dire predictions.”

“I want to believe most people made it out of here,” said New Orleans Police Homicide Detective Gregory Hamilton, sitting for a moment on the front steps of a house on Tricou Street in the Lower Nine.

“I knew a lot of people, met a lot of people, during investigations,” Hamilton told the searchers in his team. “My job is not really to gun. It’s skills, getting people to talk.”

The search team, which included federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents from Miami, padded over black muck and cautiously kicked the sludge off their boots. Almost everyone wore face masks to filter out the smell and possible toxins.

The team encountered a fire department unit from Maryland whose members said they too were finding nobody, alive or dead.

When searched, houses were marked with the orange spray paint that only the military or federal agents are allowed to use, signifying the number of dead found there, the number of survivors, the date of the search and the agency performing it.

Dozens of homes along Tricou were marked with orange zeroes on Friday.

The home searches had a protocol: After DEA agents broke in, a woman’s voice announced, “Police, DEA.” Then, a group of seven National Guard soldiers walked single-file into the house to conduct a sweep. For whatever was there.

The only survivors found over the course of a few hours Friday on Tricou were pets, mostly dogs. One poodle gazed out the opened front door from a couch. A DEA agent gave it some water, but he said all they could do was call the SPCA for removal of the pooch.

“We’ve got to get these … dogs out,” another DEA agent said. “I’m a dog lover.”

But these search units were ordered only to do identifications of survivors, the dead or their pets. Had survivors been found, the agents were to ask if they wanted to evacuate, but no one was instructed to use force.

Had a dead body been found in the poodle’s home, for example, the agents were under orders to call upon the federal Disaster Mortuary Operation Rescue Teams, a volunteer effort of morticians, dentists, fingerprint experts and pathologists, among other specialists, who answer to the Department of Homeland Security. They will identify casualties, tag them and perform autopsies.

Local cops were told only to look for possible deaths, and the only cases that will reported back to New Orleans police will be suspected instances of foul play

“We want the living,” said NOPD Capt. Marlon Defillo, the department’s spokesman. “Even today, people are calling us (for rescues).”

Defillo said it wasn’t his place to predict a death toll for New Orleans. Days earlier, Mayor Ray Nagin said that the body count could reach 10,000 for the region.

Katrina left behind filthy cars, downed power lines and an incredible coating of what firefighters and paramedics described as toxic muck, which the sun had baked into crust along some streets.

No residents were seen walking the neighborhood, Hamilton said. Instead, DEA agents in vans, police from Dublin, Ohio, and the National Guard went door to door.

This is Hamilton’s police district, where he once walked the beat to track down witnesses to murders. A 12-year NOPD veteran, Hamilton has worked homicides as a detective for nine years. His house across the Mississippi River in Algiers survived the storm. On Friday, his hope was that the neighborhood he once patrolled had done the same.

“This is the first day we’ve been allowed here,” he said on Tricou Street. “The water was very high.”

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