The first official toll comes as senior politicians admitted there were many more bodies yet to be found.
“I think it’s evident it’s in the thousands,” Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told CNN.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he did not know the exact toll, but agreed with estimates in the thousands.
“If you do the math, there’s 500,000 people in the city,” Mayor Nagin said.
“We probably evacuated 80 percent after the mandatory evacuation.”
He said another 50,000 to 60,000 people had sought shelter at the Louisiana Superdome and the the New Orleans convention centre.
“So you probably have another 50,000 to 60,000 out there. You do the math, man. What do you think? Five percent is unreasonable? Ten percent? Twenty percent? It’s going to be a big number.”
According to Republican Senator David Vitter, the figure could be as high as 10,000.
In neighbouring Mississippi the Emergency Management Agency released a revised death toll of 152.
US troops are winding up the house-by-house search for trapped survivors before the mass recovery of bodies begins.
“It is going to be about as ugly a scene as we’ve witnessed in this country, with the possible exception of 9/11,” Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff said on Fox News.
“I think we need to prepare the country for what’s coming.”
“I really want to tell people that we have got some tough days ahead of us.”
But he defended the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis.
Following US President George W Bush’s visit to hurricane affected areas last week, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured devastated parts of the Gulf Coast.
Mr Rumsfeld said it will take years for the region to recover.
President Bush who has come under intense criticism is planning a second visit to the area.