New Orleans is dry, US army engineers said Thursday after pumping almost a quarter of a trillion gallons of water from the storm-soaked city.
The Army Corps of Engineers has "essentially completed unwatering the metropolitan area of New Orleans," corps spokesman Alan Dooley told AFP.
"The city is dry, except for small pooling," Dooley said. "It's when you get down to it that you realize the back side of a block is six inches lower than the front."
Pumping stations that normally work to keep water out of New Orleans, which is a few feet below sea level, were operating to drain remaining pockets of water, according to the corps Task Force Unwatering Team.
It took 43 days of around-the-clock work to patch broken levees and pump out floodwaters after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the corps reported.
Flood walls around the city have been raised to 10 feet (three meters), and the corps was still facing the job of fortifying the levee system, according to Dooley.
"The next steps are all the things that pertain to bringing the levees back to pre-Katrina strength," Dooley said. "That's a lot of earth moving, removing barges from on top of levees. There is much work to be done."
The corps "mission" is to restore the federal levee network to pre-storm condition by June 2006, according to Colonel Richard Wagenaar of the corps.
"I am confident the US Army Corps of Engineers will meet and exceed the significant engineering challenges we face," Wagenaar said in a written release, adding that they "will once again make this city a home to the families and businesses of New Orleans."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has called on federal officials to hastily fortify the city's battered and broken levees, and then upgrade them to withstand even direct hits from hurricanes as fierce as Katrina, a category four storm, on the five-category Saffir-Simpson scale.
Nagin visited refugees in shelters on Thursday, urging them to return and rebuild their lives and communities in New Orleans.
In the nearly obliterated Lower Ninth Ward section of New Orleans, councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis was adamant that residents wanted to return and rebuild the working-class, African-American neighborhood.
She vowed to fight any proposals to bulldoze the ward, a chunk of which was stripped of buildings and buried in mud after a levee broke in two places.
The Lower Ninth was the last part of the city to be cleared of floodwater by the corps, who were continuing work on the levee patches.
Former residents who returned to check on their houses after police blockades were lifted Wednesday were divided about its future, with many saying they would hold onto the land but not rebuild.
More bodies were reportedly found in the Lower Ninth as people dug into wreckage that was previously inaccessible.
State officials working with local coroners had recovered 1,025 bodies as of the most recent count released Wednesday by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
Some people died from asphyxiation from fumes from electric power generators used indoors after returning to devastated communities, according to local authorities.
US federal and state agencies are "working together on a push to provide temporary housing for all victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita who have been living in shelters," the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported.
Hurricane Katrina forced over 270,000 Gulf Coast families to flee to emergency shelters, according to Thad Allen, a federal official coordinating recovery efforts.
In recent weeks, 92 percent of those refugees have moved from shelters into transitional housing, Allen said in a written release.
"While we continue to make significant progress in reducing the shelter population, no one will be forced out of the shelters by mid-month," Allen said.All rights reserved. © 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.