By MICHAEL RUBINKAM, Associated Press Writer
Under pressure from President Bush and other top federal officials,
the mayor suspended the reopening of large portions of the city Monday
and instead ordered nearly everyone out because of the risk of a new
round of flooding from a tropical storm on the way.
"If we are off, I'd rather err on the side of conservatism to make
sure we have everyone out," Mayor Ray Nagin said.
The announcement came after repeated warnings from top federal officials --
and the president himself -- that New Orleans was not safe enough to
reopen. Among other things, federal officials warned that Tropical
Storm Rita could breach the city's temporarily patched-up levees and
swamp the city all over again. Army Corps of Engineers officials noted
that many of the repairs thus far from Katrina were 'emergency, temporary'
repairs, intended to make things 'hold together safely while workers
then got into the more detailed task of rebuilding them permanently.
"Another storm, such as Rita would collapse the work we have done to
date," noted the officials.
The official death toll from Hurricane Katrina reached 973 across the
Gulf Coast, with the number in Louisiana alone rising by 90 to 736.
The mayor reversed course even as residents began trickling back to
the first neighborhood opened as part of his plan, the less damaged
Nagin wanted to reopen some of the city's signature neighborhoods over
the coming week to reassure the people of New Orleans that "there was
a city to come back to."
But "now we have conditions that have changed. We have another
hurricane that is approaching us," Nagin said. He warned that the
city's pumping system was not yet running at full capacity and that
the levees were still in a "very weak position."
The mayor ordered residents who circumvented checkpoints and slipped
back into still-closed parts of the city, including the French
Quarter, to leave immediately.
Nagin also urged everyone already settled back into Algiers to be
ready to evacuate as early as Wednesday. The city requested 200 buses
to help if necessary. Nagin noted that "this time, as needed, the
busses will make as many trips as needed; load up, take the evacuees
away to safety, then return a second or third time for another load."
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, in a televised address Monday, also
urged residents of coastal southwest Louisiana to be prepared to
leave. More evacuees would strain the shelters in Texas, she said, so
she urged people to head for central and northern Louisiana instead.
"We will pray that Rita will not devastate Louisiana, but today we do
not know the answer to that question," Blanco said.
Tropical Storm Rita was headed toward the Florida Keys and was
expected to become a hurricane, cross the Gulf of Mexico and reach
Texas or Mexico by the weekend. But forecasters said it could veer
toward Louisiana and New Orleans' weakened levees. Army Corps of
Engineers employees furiously continued their 'temporary, emergency'
repairs throughout the night.
"We're watching Tropical Storm Rita's projected path and, depending on
its strength and how much rain falls, everything could change," said
Col. Duane Gapinski, of the Army Corps of Engineers task force
draining New Orleans and repairing levees.
The dispute over the mayor's plan to quickly reopen New Orleans and
bring back about 180,000 of the city's half-million inhabitants was
just the latest example of the lack of federal-local coordination that
has marked the disaster almost from the start.
Nagin saw a quick reopening as a way to get the storm-battered city
back in the business of luring tourists. But federal officials warned
it would be premature, pointing out much of the area does not yet have
full electricity, drinkable water, 911 service or working hospitals.
The officials warned, "after all, there is basically no phone service
either; how would we round up all the evacuees for a second trip out
of town if it becomes necessary?"
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who heads the federal recovery
effort in the region, went on one news show after another over the
weekend to warn that city services may not be able to handle an influx
of people. "What if it happens again, and this time the hurricane
takes a slightly different course and the twenty percent saved last
time around gets hit this time? We are recommending people just go
away and stay away until _we_ say it is safe."
Allen said repeatedly that he intended to have a frank discussion with
Nagin about his concerns on Monday, but the two didn't meet until
after Nagin held a news conference to announce he was suspending
re-entry to the city, a mayor's spokeswoman said.
Nagin had spent the weekend in Dallas, where he moved his family and
has enrolled his daughter in school, and he missed an appointment with
Allen because his flight home was delayed, she said.
Earlier, a clearly agitated Nagin had snapped that Allen had
apparently made himself "the new crowned federal mayor of New
Allen tried unsuccessfully to reach the mayor by cell phone over the
weekend, a Coast Guard spokesman. President Bush said White House
chief of staff Andrew Card had also been pressing Nagin to pull back
on the plan.
With the approach of Rita, Bush added his own voice to the mix, saying
he had "deep concern" about the possibility that New Orleans' levees
could be breached again.
In addition, Bush said there are significant environmental concerns. New
Orleans still lacks safe drinking water, and there are fears about the
contamination in the remaining floodwaters and the muck left behind in
drained areas of the city.
"The mayor -- you know, he's got this dream about having a city up and
running, and we share that dream," the president said. "But we also
want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles that we
all confront in repopulating New Orleans."
About 20 percent of the city is still flooded, down from a high of
about 80 percent after Katrina, and the water was expected to be
pumped out by Sept. 30.
But officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said the repairs to the
levees breached by Katrina are not yet strong enough to prevent
flooding in a moderate storm, much less another hurricane. Brig. Gen.
Robert Crear said Monday they hope to have the levees capable of hand-
ling a Category 3 storm by June, the start of hurricane season. He
said, "right now we are just making things safe enough for our people
to work in the area."
Nagin did not give any specifics about how he plans to enforce the
renewed evacuation order.
In the raucous French Quarter, about a half-mile from where Nagin made
his announcement, businesses were getting up and running, and bars
were serving cold beers to National Guardsmen and passers-by.
Del Juneau, owner of a Bourbon Street lingerie shop, said it would be
premature to order an evacuation based on the storm nearing
Florida. "Where are you going to go? What are you going to do?" he
said. "I'm not going anywhere."
Down the street at the Famous Door, bartender C.B. Dover, said: "If we
have a forced evacuation, we'll go. If it's not forced, we're not
going anywhere." Dover said the mayor "has been overreacting the whole
time. ... He's reacting emotionally, and you can't do that."
Earlier in the day, as residents began streaming in at the mayor's
invitation, cars were backed for two hours at an Interstate 10
checkpoint into the city. Tractor-trailers, emergency vehicles and
National Guard trucks shared the highway with cars towing trailers
full of hurricane gear and pickup trucks with their beds loaded with
water, cleaning materials and coolers.
It was clear that at least some of the traffic was headed to sections
of the city that had not yet officially opened.
Algiers, a neighborhood of 57,000 just across the Mississippi River
from the French Quarter, is home to many of the companies that make
floats for Mardi Gras parades. Unlike much of the rest of the city, it
saw little damage from Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago and has
electricity and drinkable water.
"Obviously we need to get businesses up and running any way we can,"
said Barry Kern, whose float businesses is stocked to the rafters with
oversized imaginary creatures. "If we don't start somewhere, where do
Elsewhere across the city, where the damage was more severe, much of
the sentiment seemed to be with the mayor and his attempts to reopen
the city quickly.
"Send Bush here and we'll make him a po' boy and tell him to leave us
alone," Kathleen Horn said as she cleaned up the debris piled in front
of Slim Goodies Diner on Magazine Street in Uptown.
Ironically, as everyone was chattering about all the 'flood waters'
which had done such damage to New Orleans, a light rain started to
fall over parts of the city.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
More Associated Press headlines, stories and news radio at: