NEW ORLEANS, United States (AFP) -President George W. Bush toured storm-wrecked New Orleans for the first time, as the head of the US disaster agency quit, yielding to intense criticism over the hurricane relief effort.
Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina turned the city into a festering swamp, the gruesome job of recovering bodies gathered pace and the confirmed death toll rose above 500 in the Gulf Coast states hit by the storm.
Seeking to counter criticism of his handling of the disaster, Bush toured the flooded city by motorcade, open military truck and helicopter to see the disaster zone for himself.
Bush had previously flown over New Orleans but not seen the devastation from the ground. He later went to a suburb that was badly hit by the August 29 storm and to Gulfport, Mississippi.
The mounting criticism has seen Bush”s approval ratings slump to their worst levels since he took office in January 2001.
Bush Monday also declared a state of emergency in the states of Arizona and Virginia to allow federal moneys to defray costs of hosting evacuees in those states, the White House said Monday.
The federal dollars will help state officials "to assist evacuees from the area struck by Hurricane Katrina and to provide emergency assistance to those areas beginning on August 29, 2005, and continuing," according to the White House statement.
The US Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, directly hit by the storm on August 29, were previously declared states of emergency.
More than 30 of the 50 US states are already housing evacuees and Bush has declared states of emergency in many, including Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and South Dakota.
Under intense pressure and a torrent of criticism over the Federal Emergency Management Agency”s sluggish response to Katrina, Michael Brown announced he was quitting as head of the agency.
"It is important that I leave now to avoid further distraction from the ongoing mission of FEMA," Brown said in a statement.
Reports have accused Brown of lacking emergency relief experience before he joined the agency as a Bush appointee in 2001 and said there were discrepancies in his official resume and a White House press release from 2001.
David Paulison, a former Miami fire chief with 30 years in the emergency services and experience of Florida”s devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, was announced as Brown”s replacement.
Bush appeared initially not to know about the resignation. His spokesman later said the decision to go had been Brown”s.
Critics were delighted.
"Michael Brown”s departure from FEMA is long overdue, and his resignation is the right thing for the country and for the people of the Gulf Coast states," said Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.
Brown had been called back to Washington on Friday and replaced as pointman on the ground by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen. Bush had stood up for Brown in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, telling him: "Brownie, you”re doing a heck of a job."
Bush has refused to identify any specific failures in Washington”s response to Katrina but flatly dismissed critics who have noted that most of those unable to flee the city were black.
"The storm didn”t discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort."
He also rejected any suggestion that National Guard deployments in Iraq had cost the rescue effort valuable time.
"It is preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there wasn”t enough troops here. It”s pure and simple," he added. "We”ve got plenty of troops to do both."
On the ground, more pumps came online as efforts to bring life back to New Orleans pushed ahead.
Passes to cross a security cordon around the city were to be issued to help small businesses hoping to reopen.
Owners of small shops, restaurants, hotels, gasoline stations and supermarkets were to be allowed to visit their properties to assess damage, said Louisiana state police.
The city”s Louis Armstrong International Airport, which has handled only humanitarian and military flights since Katrina struck, was gearing up to reopen to commercial flights on Tuesday.
But the city”s infrastructure is wrecked, and reconstruction will take many years and cost billions of dollars.
Many districts, especially in east New Orleans, remain under deep brown floodwaters covered with a floating sludge of trash and debris.
Some suburbs have been obliterated and medical experts say the risk of contamination is high even as the putrid waters recede.
Officials have warned it will be months before drinking water is restored.
The receding floods have exposed more bloated corpses every day. Specialised teams were taking the dead to a morgue outside the city, where experts will use dental records and DNA samples to determine their identities.
In one grisly discovery in submerged eastern New Orleans, relief workers found the bodies of 45 people in a hospital, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals spokeswoman Melissa Walker said.
"Forty-five corpses were retrieved from the Memorial Medical Center… The bodies were found yesterday (Sunday) but the retrieval operation is ongoing."
The confirmed death toll was certain to rise, although officials have said they are confident that it will be less than the 10,000 dead estimated last week for New Orleans alone.
The number of evacuees forced to seek refuge in homeless shelters was also down significantly, the Department of Homeland Security said, with the number of people displaced by Katrina now 141,000, down from 208,000.
But 200,000 families may be forced to remain in emergency accommodation for three to five years, FEMA”s housing area commander Brad Gair said.
To help the effort, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were crafting a multi-billion-dollar recovery plan aimed at luring business back to the region, including tax incentives and a huge bond issue, a Louisiana official said.
A fresh storm off the US east coast meanwhile prompted authorities to post storm warnings, ready troops and urge residents to leave isolated islands as tropical storm Ophelia headed towards land.