The latest in a long line of disputes among local, state and federal officials over Hurricane Katrina was defused yesterday when New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin called off reopening the city, although he cited another storm for his capitulation rather than federal officials’ litany of concerns.
The various levels of government have disagreed over when to call in federal troops and whether the entire operation should be federalized. They also have clashed over when and how to evacuate New Orleans and when to let residents return.
“We share the goal of the mayor, but we have got concerns,” Mr. Bush said early yesterday, when Mr. Nagin still was allowing residents to return.
“The mayor has got this dream about having a city up and running — and we share that dream,” Mr. Bush said. “But we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles that we all confront in repopulating New Orleans.”
The obstacles include the possibility of additional flooding from Tropical Storm Rita, which was heading toward the Gulf of Mexico yesterday, and the lack of electricity, drinking water and sewage facilities. Early yesterday, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen said it might be as much as a week before residents could return safely.
“We just think that conditions need to be set so when people come back in, they can operate safely, and, moreover, with the weakened levee system, that there’s a plan to evacuate whatever number of people are allowed back in the city,” he told CNN.
“When those conditions are met and the risk has been reduced, then the population comes in,” he added. “That could be two days, five days, one week.”
Mr. Nagin initially criticized the remarks and insisted that up to 180,000 people — about a third of the city’s population — be allowed to return during the next 10 days.
“I’m a little surprised the admiral came out publicly on this,” Mr. Nagin told Fox News Channel in the morning. “Maybe since I’ve been away a day or two, maybe he’s the new crowned federal mayor of New Orleans.”
Mr. Nagin, who spent the weekend in Dallas, said: “If he’s suggesting I’m pushing a little hard, I am. The citizens of New Orleans deserve the opportunity to see what they have left and what they can salvage.”
Later in the day, however, Mr. Nagin began reassessing the timing of his plan because of Tropical Storm Rita and other “external factors,” said Nagin spokeswoman Sally Foreman.
By the end of the day, the mayor reversed himself, agreeing with Mr. Bush and Adm. Allen that it was too soon and too unsafe for residents to return.
The rift yesterday was the latest in a series of high-profile disagreements among federal, state and local officials about how to handle the hurricane and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans.
The discord began Aug. 27, when Mr. Bush asked Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to order an evacuation of New Orleans. Mrs. Blanco did not issue the order until Aug. 28, a day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Mrs. Blanco also neglected to ask the president for federal troops when she wrote him a letter on Aug. 27 and when she spoke with him on Aug. 29. She had not made the request even on Aug. 31, when she gave a series of television interviews in Baton Rouge.