Gov. Haley Barbour said on NBC’s Today show, “The devastation down there is just enormous.”
He said there have been reports of 50 to 80 fatalities in coastal Harrison County.
“They are unconfirmed but likely are accurate and likelier to go up when we take in the other counties,” Barbour said, Reuters reported.
Local media said 30 people died at a Biloxi, Miss. apartment complex when they were drowned or crushed by debris.
Three more people were reported killed by falling trees in Mississippi, and two died in a traffic accident in Alabama, authorities said.
While no deaths have officially been confirmed in Louisiana, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin reported bodies floating in floodwaters, according to Reuters.
“The city of New Orleans is in a state of devastation,” he told television station WWL. “We probably have 80 percent of our city under water; with some sections of our city the water is as deep as 20 feet. We still have many of our residents on roofs. Both airports are under water.”
The storm inflicted catastrophic damage along the Gulf Coast, packing 140 mph winds, before it swept across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
It shattered buildings, smashed cars and boats, toppled trees and flooded cities. Risk analysts estimated the storm would cost insurers $26 billion, the most in U.S. history, Reuters reported.
Along the coast, fallen trees and power lines prevented rescuers from immediately reaching victims. Crews worked to clear highways, and along one Mississippi highway, motorists themselves used chainsaws to remove trees blocking the road, according to the Associated Press.
Officials said it would be at least a week before many evacuees are allowed back. They warned people returning too early could interfere with rescue efforts.
“What we’re doing is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and we need people to cooperate,” New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass said, reported the AP.
More than 1,600 Mississippi National Guardsmen were sent to help with the recovery, and the Alabama Guard planned to send two battalions to Mississippi.
In New Orleans, those who remained behind were encountering another problem: rising water. Failed pumps and levees apparently sent water from Lake Pontchartrain through the streets.
The floodwaters forced one New Orleans hospital to move patients to the Louisiana Superdome, where some 10,000 people had sought shelter, authorities said.