BATON ROUGE, La. – Water-logged south Louisiana showed signs Saturday of drying out faster than expected as local officials began to clean up the mess, even as the death count from Hurricane Katrina inched up slowly.

Dan Hitchings, an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, flew over New Orleans Saturday and said he was “astounded at how much more land area is exposed – is dry – than it was before.” Some early estimates had called for floodwaters to remain in parts of the area as long as 80 days.

The latest timetables call for parts of New Orleans to be pumped dry by Oct. 2, and other areas by Oct. 8 or Oct. 18. That’s based on the number of permanent and temporary pumps the Corps has running, and it’s contingent on rainfall not exceeding historical averages in coming weeks.

Most activity Saturday focused on starting the rebuilding effort. One indication of that: State officials announce they had awarded a $30.9 million emergency contract to begin repairing the shattered eastbound lanes of the Interstate 10 bridge over Lake Ponchartrain, one of the main East-West roads out of New Orleans. Officials hope to have the lanes reopened within 45 days, said Gordon Nelson, assistant secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development.

In another development, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport will reopen to passenger air service on Tuesday, officials announced. The airport has been used as a massive staging area and transportation hub since soon after the hurricane passed. Only two of the airport’s four concourses will initially be used for passenger air service.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross is preparing for the long haul, putting out a plea to potential new recruits nationwide.

As the current crop of Red Cross volunteers tires in coming days, national officials say they want to recruit and train 40,000 more volunteers, who will then assist Katrina-related efforts in waves of 10,000 each.

“We are going to need more people,” said John Degnan, a public-affairs specialist with the Red Cross. The relief agency is now operating 675 shelters, housing 160,000 Katrina survivors, and on Friday night provided meals for 500,000 people.

The agency’s volunteers typically serve three-week stints. Currently, there are 4,000 volunteers in Louisiana, and 36,000 nationwide, helping Katrina survivors.

“It’s going to take very special people for a very long time to get things back to some sense of normalcy for these people,” Degnan said.

As of Saturday morning, the confirmed Louisiana death count stood at 154, state officials said, with clear expectations it will rise, but probably not to the stratospheric levels initially feared.

Corpses were being held at temporary morgues in a handful of locations in the southeast corner of the state. In Mississippi, the count is 211 confirmed dead, but is not expected to rise greatly there.

Much of Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen’s first full day overseeing the operation was spent making sure recovered bodies are treated with “dignity and respect,” he said aboard the USS Iwo Jima at a press conference.

He also said most pumps in the flooded city are still not working.

Allen called FEMA Director Michael Brown, who was ousted Friday from overseeing the Katrina relief effort, a friend. Allen said his goal was to move ahead with his job, not look back on the controversy raging over the government’s blunders.

Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard called Allen the perfect choice for the job. “Once they put a military man in charge, I knew this would instantly be better.”

New Orleans, the site of widespread looting and unrest in the days after the storm, remained relatively calm. The once-vibrant city is almost deserted, save a huge military and law enforcement presence, the media, some workers beginning to clean up the downtown business district, and a few thousand citizens resisting pleas to leave.

“The security situation is under hand – we’re in good shape there,” said Lt. Col. Bill Doran, chief of operations for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security. “Some citizens are exercising their right to stay in dry areas,” Doran said, adding that officials are “encouraging them to leave” so as not to hamper recovery efforts, but not forcing them to do so.

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