Although body counting in New Orleans and other hurricane-ravaged areas in the United States will not be completed in weeks, the city's mayor warned Monday that the killer storm may have claimed some 10,000 lives.
A week after the hurricane, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned on NBC's "Today" that "it wouldn't be unreasonable" that the death toll could be as high as 10,000.
Meanwhile, he said "great progress" has been made in the federal and local relief efforts and the momentum has picked up.
"I'm starting to see some critical tasks being completed," he said.
Federal officials had earlier predicted that the death toll might skyrocket.
"I think it is evident it's in the thousands," US Health and Human Service Secretary Michael Leavitt said Sunday.
In the first official count in New Orleans, Louisiana, authorities have verified 59 deaths.
Adding to the misery of the devastated city, some 400 to 500 local policemen from New Orleans' 1,600-strong police force were unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, long lines of vehicles crawled into Jefferson Parish west of the city early Monday as residents were allowed to return to salvage what was left of their homes.
Traffic began moving into the parish about 6 am and a curfew was set for 6 pm. Residents were allowed to stay there until Wednesday.
In a related development, US President George W. Bush on Monday began his second trip to the region since the storm hit, landing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, late in the morning to start another inspection tour and consultations with federal and local officials.
"All levels of the government are doing the best they can," Bush said upon his arrival, promising that "so long as any life is in danger, we've got work to do."
He praised the volunteers and churches who have been working to take care of storm refugees, saying "the response of the country has been amazing."