NEW ORLEANS - Authorities said Friday that their first systematic sweep of the city found far fewer bodies than expected, suggesting that Hurricane Katrina's death toll may not be the catastrophic 10,000 feared.
"I think there's some encouragement in what we've found in the initial sweeps that some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred," said Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' homeland security chief.
Ebbert declined to give a new estimate of the dead.
Authorities turned their attention to counting and removing the dead in a grid-by-grid search of the city after spending days cajoling, persuading and all but strong-arming the living into leaving the shattered city because of the danger of fires and disease from the filthy, corpse-laden floodwaters.
"Numbers so far are relatively minor as compared to the dire projections of 10,000," Ebbert said.
Mayor Ray Nagin had suggested over the weekend that the death toll could climb that high, and authorities ordered 25,000 body bags as they started gathering up the dead across a landscape awash in corpses.
Separately, Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commanding general of 82nd Airborne Division, said the last of the bodies at the convention center would be taken out on Friday. Thousands took shelter there for days with little or no food or water, in what became an increasingly chaotic and violent situation, and several people were found dead.
In a small sign of progress, authorities said the New Orleans airport will reopen to commercial flights on Sept. 19. Caldwell said water and power are functioning at the airport.
Authorities continued trying to clear the city of holdouts, and also confiscated guns from homeowners. Police and soldiers feared deadly confrontations with jittery residents who have armed themselves against looters.
"Walking up and down these streets, you don't want to think about the stuff that you're going to have to do, if somebody pops out around a corner," said National Guardsman Chris Montgomery.
As many as 10,000 people were believed to be stubbornly staying put in the city, despite orders from the mayor earlier this week to leave or be removed by force. By midmorning, though, there were no reports of anyone being taken out forcibly, police said.
Police are "not going to do that until we absolutely have to. We really don't want to do that at all," Deputy Chief Warren Riley said.
Some residents who had previously refused to leave - whether because they wanted to protect their homes from looters, they did not want to leave their pets behind, or they simply feared the unknown - are now changing their minds and asking to be rescued, police said.
"They realize they're not going to this awful situation like the Superdome or the Convention Center," Riley said. "As days go by, it seems less and less likely that we'll have to force anyone."
He added: "I don't know of any incidents where people are being belligerent."
Some residents said they left under extreme pressure.
"They were all insisting that I had to leave my home," said Shelia Dalferes, who said she had 15 minutes to pack before she and her husband were evacuated. "The implication was there with their plastic handcuffs on their belt. Who wants to go out like that?"
Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Jason Rule said his crew pulled 18 people from their homes Thursday. He said some of the holdouts did not want to leave unless they could take their pets.
"It's getting to the point where they're delirious," Rule said. "A couple of them don't know who they were. They think the water will go down in a few days."
On Thursday, in the city's well-to-do Lower Garden District, a neighborhood with many antebellum mansions, members of the Oklahoma National Guard seized weapons from the inhabitants of one home. Those who were armed were handcuffed and briefly detained before being let go.
"No one will be able to be armed. We are going to take all the weapons," Riley said.
The floodwaters are slowly receding, but the task of gathering rotting corpses and clearing debris is certain to take months.
At two collection sites, federal mortuary teams gathered information that might help identify the bodies, such as where they were found. Personal effects were also being logged.
At a temporary morgue set up in nearby St. Gabriel, where 67 bodies had been collected by Thursday, the remains were being photographed and forensic workers hoped to use dental X-rays, fingerprints and DNA to identify them.
Dr. Bryan Patucci, coroner of St. Bernard Parish, said it may be impossible to identify all the victims until authorities compile a final list of missing people.
Decaying corpses in the floodwaters could pose problems for engineers who are desperately trying to pump the city dry. While 37 of the 174 pumps in the New Orleans area were working and 17 portable pumps were in place Thursday, officials said the mammoth undertaking could be complicated by corpses getting clogged in the pumps.
"It's got a huge focus of our attention right now," said John Rickey of the Army Corps of Engineers. "Those remains are people's loved ones."
Some 400,000 homes in the city were still without power, with no immediate prospect of getting it back. And fires continued to be a problem. At least 11 blazes burned across the city Thursday. Three buildings were destroyed at historically black Dillard University.
Also Thursday, Congress rushed through an additional $51.8 billion for Katrina relief, and President Bush pledged to make it "easy and simple as possible" for uprooted storm victims to collect food stamps and other government benefits.
To counter criticism of the slow federal response to the disaster, Vice President Dick Cheney toured parts of the ravaged Gulf Coast, claiming significant progress but acknowledging immense obstacles remained to a full recovery.
Meanwhile, Democrats threatened to boycott the naming of a panel that Republican leaders are proposing to investigate the administration's readiness and response to the storm. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said it was like a baseball pitcher calling "his own balls and strikes."
Democrats have urged the appointment of an independent panel like the Sept. 11 commission.