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Bush aide loses relief role

New Orleans, Sept. 9 (Reuters): The Bush administration moved to quell a political storm today by replacing the embattled head of emergency operations along the US Gulf Coast, as rescue workers in New Orleans ended recovery efforts and began collecting the dead victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff announced he was appointing vice-admiral Thad Allen, chief of staff of the US coast guard, to take charge of recovery operations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and recalling Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown to Washington to coordinate the response to other possible disasters.

“We have to have seamless interaction with military forces,” Chertoff said in Baton Rouge. “Mike Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge. I appreciate his work, as does everybody here.”

Brown had been the target of furious bipartisan criticism for the government’s slow initial response to the hurricane and some of both political parties have called for his firing.

But President George W. Bush publicly praised Brown last week for doing a “heck of a job.” The last straw appeared to come today with published reports that Brown had padded his resume, although Chertoff refused to acknowledge a question on these reports. In New Orleans, hopes rose that the number of dead might not be as catastrophic as predicted. Rescuers were only now beginning a methodical house-by-house search of the city for victims’ bodies.

Thousands had been feared trapped in the poor, blue-collar neighbourhoods, where people had no means to evacuate ahead of the August 29 storm.

“There’s some encouragement in the initial sweeps. ... The numbers (of dead) so far are relatively minor as compared with the dire predictions of 10,000,” Colonel Terry Ebbert, director of Homeland Security for the city of New Orleans said.

Flood waters were receding and city officials said New Orleans was now “fully secured,” with 14,000 troops on patrol to prevent looting.

Louisiana lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu said that contrary to earlier reports nobody was being forcibly removed from the city. Thousands of people were still believed to be holding out, some in neighbourhoods still awash in a fetid soup of debris, bacteria, decomposed bodies, chemicals and oil.

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