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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005, 04:05 GMT 05:05 UK
Storm-hit N Orleans suburbs open
Emily Martinez inspects her flood-damaged home in New Orleans
The floods left houses full of mud and mould
Residents of three New Orleans suburbs have begun returning home since basic services damaged during Hurricane Katrina and its floods were restored.

Some of those allowed back into Gretna, Westwego and Lafitte at daybreak found their properties relatively unscathed while others were piles of rubble.

Katrina's official death toll has risen to 640 as more bodies are found.

The International Monetary Fund is predicting the hurricane will have only a short-term effect on the US economy.

"We don't see an economic problem here, we see a human problem," Rodrigo de Rato, its managing director, was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying on Wednesday.

Damage from the storm could cause economic disturbances over the next few months, he added, but this would not be the case for next year.

Still under water

Returning residents found Katrina had shown little rhyme or reason as it churned through.

"It was real hit and miss," Lafitte resident Lester Cipriano, whose home suffered only minor damage, told Reuters.

A shattered mobile home nearby had lost its roof, with torn insulation covering the floor.

A sign is all that stands on the site of a Biloxi restaurant
Katrina devastated communities along the Gulf Coast

As residents return to the drier outskirts of New Orleans, it is thought that around 40% of the city is still rotting under the fetid flood waters, the BBC's Claire Marshall reports from the city.

On a boat ride around the city's prosperous West End district, close to one of the major levee breaches, our correspondent saw that houses once well cared-for were still standing in more than 1.5 metres (4.8ft) of water.

Save for a few stray dogs and an emergency worker using a plank of wood to paddle a canoe, the area was totally deserted.

However, dirty water marks, some 2.5m up on the walls, showed where the level had once been.

Although the process is painstakingly slow for the residents who cannot yet return home, the city is being drained of the flood water.

The mayor of New Orleans has said that the central business district and the picturesque French Quarter are expected to open on Monday.

However, people are being advised that the receding flood waters do contain hazardous substances, such as e-coli, lead and arsenic.

If people have the means to survive outside the city, our correspondent says, it is advisable not to return yet.

Port reopens

Republican leaders in the US Senate have suggested a modern-day Marshall Plan for the recovery of the disaster area.

They called for a "coordinated and comprehensive plan to help the Gulf Coast region".

Storm damage estimates ranging from $100bn to $200bn would make it the costliest natural disaster in US history.

New Orleans' lucrative port reopened on Wednesday with the first ship leaving since the hurricane.

Paul Zimmermann, director of operations, said the port was in "fairly good shape for the most part" but far from fully operational.

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