BILOXI, Miss. – Hurricane Katrina damaged or demolished nearly half a million homes in three states, the American Red Cross said Wednesday – four times as many as Hurricane Andrew did when it hit South Florida in 1992.

As President Bush prepared to speak to the nation from an undisclosed location in the disaster zone tonight at 9, environmental and fiscal challenges continued to mount along the Gulf Coast, and Louisiana launched a massive investigation of health-care facilities where patients who weren’t evacuated died after the storm.

The Red Cross’ attempt to quantify the wreckage in Katrina’s aftermath found a swath of destruction that extended 150 miles inland, with entire neighborhoods flattened and flooded. Mississippi suffered damage to as many as one out of five homes.

Altogether, more than 240,000 homes in Louisiana, another 240,000 in Mississippi and 1,700 in Alabama got hit in some way, the Red Cross said. Hurricane Andrew, which until now was the costliest storm in U.S. history, damaged about 125,000 homes.

The six Mississippi counties closest to the coast saw the most widespread destruction, with one out of three houses wrecked or completely wiped out. More than 80 percent suffered damage.

“You look at communities like Pass Christian – almost everything is gone,” said John McFarland, former chairman of the state’s Red Cross chapter. “Hancock County – almost everything is gone.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency cautioned that Red Cross estimates are sometimes high, but said its own assessment won’t be done until all homeowners’ claims are filed and evaluated.

The hurricane’s death toll stood at just over 700 on Wednesday, but officials in New Orleans warned that more bodies might still be found.

In other Katrina-related news:

• Louisiana prosecutors are probing New Orleans-area nursing homes and hospitals to determine if they neglected their patients as Katrina slammed ashore.

Investigators are looking into the deaths of 14 patients at the LaFon Nursing Home in eastern New Orleans, said Kris Wartelle, spokeswoman for state Attorney General Charles Foti.

• White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush will outline new initiatives tonight to help rebuild the damaged region and will stress the need for the American public to pull together, as it did after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“The president wants people to think big,” McClellan added. “More importantly, he believes that it should be driven locally in terms of the vision and the planning, with the full support of the federal government.”

McClellan offered no specifics.

• The independent 9-11 Commission’s leaders, one Republican and one Democrat, jointly blasted the Bush administration, saying officials should have realized that Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophe of national proportions even before the storm struck and not waited for mayors and governors to ask for help.

“Anyone watching that storm knew it was going to affect Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana,” said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. “This is not a disaster for the mayor of New Orleans to deal with.”

Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, called it “a disappointing response. … It was obvious nobody knew who was in charge.”

If the commission’s recommendations had been followed, they said, fewer lives would have been lost.

• Two Republican senators, along with former New Orleans Democratic mayor and current Urban League president Marc Morial, urged the president to appoint a “recovery czar” to oversee federal hurricane relief and rebuilding.

Reconstruction will take several years, said Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., adding that an independent manager is needed to create a recovery plan, track the money and report directly to the president.

“When this much money gets put out this fast,” Sessions said, “there’s a real danger of waste, fraud and abuse.”

• The New Orleans public school system and city government both say they’re running out of money and can’t pay their employees.

Mayor Ray Nagin said the city is trying to secure a line of credit or federal assistance to keep New Orleans operating through year’s end. “We don’t have any more cash,” he said.

• Louisiana’s top environmental official said the testing of floodwaters and sediment in New Orleans and its suburbs has found high levels of bacterial contamination, but that toxic chemicals and heavy metals are below levels of “acute concern.”

Still, it is “going to be a while before we see people moving back” to their homes, especially in the most-flooded areas, such as eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, said Mike McDaniel, secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality.

Nagin, meanwhile, was optimistic that residents would be able to return to less-flooded areas – such as the French Quarter and uptown – by Monday, if test results permit.

• The Environmental Protection Agency cast doubt on New Orleans’ safety, with administrator Stephen Johnson calling the pollution left behind by Katrina the worst environmental disaster his agency has ever seen.

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