- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Mayor C. Ray Nagin yesterday said large parts of the city will reopen in the next two weeks, including the French Quarter, a plan that would allow about 38 percent of the population to return beginning Monday.

“We will have life. We will have commerce. We will have people getting into their normal modes of operations and the normal rhythm of the city of New Orleans that is so unique,” Mr. Nagin said.

The return of residents to areas that suffered little or no flooding and were among the least-damaged parts of the city will mark the beginning of what federal officials predict will be the biggest urban reconstruction project in U.S. history.

“I imagine building a city so original, so unique that everybody’s going to want to come,” said Mr. Nagin, who predicted that half of the city’s nearly half-million population would return in the next three to six months.

President Bush, several hours later in a prime-time address from the French Quarter’s Jackson Square, vowed to rebuild the Gulf Coast, primarily with federal money, estimated at $200 billion or beyond.

“This great city will rise again,” Mr. Bush said.

The re-population of the city would proceed by ZIP code, starting Monday in the Algiers section, a Creole-influenced neighborhood across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. The city’s Uptown section, which includes the Garden District’s leafy streets and antebellum mansions, will open in stages next Wednesday and Friday.

The French Quarter — the very heart and soul of the city’s rollicking tourism industry — will follow on Sept. 26.

“The French Quarter is high and dry, and we feel as though it has good electricity capabilities,” the mayor said, “but since it’s so historic, we want to double- and triple-check before we fire up all electricity in there to make sure that, because every building is so close, that if a fire breaks out, we won’t lose a significant amount of what we cherish in this city.”

The announcement came amid progress in restoring power and water service and the day after the release of government tests showing that the floodwaters still contain dangerous bacteria and industrial chemicals, but that the air is safe to breathe.

Mr. Nagin said there should be power in areas where people will be allowed back, an area where about 182,000 of the city’s 485,000 residents live. But the water will be good only for flushing toilets, not for drinking and bathing, and there will be a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Major retailers will use the city’s convention center, where people fleeing floodwaters endured days of despair before help arrived, as a makeshift mall to sell returning residents food, wood and other things they will need.

Despite the good news, large sections of New Orleans remained accessible only by boat, and corpses could still be seen out in the open. In flooded streets near the University of New Orleans’ campus along Lake Pontchartrain, two bodies were seen floating facedown, and the decomposed corpse of one woman was sprawled on the top step of a church, her skin wrinkled and leathery, her cane lying beside her.

Across five Gulf Coast states, the death toll from Katrina stood at 794, led by 558 in Louisiana.

In the hard-hit Ninth Ward, National Guard Col. Michael Thompson said his troops have seen the bodies of several people who had been killed.

“I’ve got a lot of police officers on my staff, and they recognize the signs of it. You’d see the entry wound of the bullet and the exit wound,” Col. Thompson said. “So it was obvious that something had taken place other than natural death.”

He said the two biggest challenges facing his troops were aggressive dogs and poor sanitation. He said pit bulls left behind by evacuating residents have formed packs and were attacking soldiers. One soldier was forced to shoot a dog that attacked him, he said.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers said it is getting water pumped out of eastern New Orleans and nearby parishes faster than expected, and most of the area should be dry by the end of this month — about a week earlier than estimated.

Tourism brings $10 billion to New Orleans annually and accounts for about 15 percent of the city’s jobs. The city relies heavily on the dollars that tourists and conventioneers spend in the French Quarter’s cafes, strip bars, jazz clubs, restaurants and stores. The dollars also feed the Quarter’s cast of characters — the street musicians, mime artists, palm readers, hot dog vendors, street artists.

Word of the reopening raised spirits in the neighborhood.

“There’s no reason why this area shouldn’t have been taken care of already — it’s where the money is,” said Frank Redmond, who helps run a small French Quarter bar called Evelyn’s Place. “If you want to get people back to work, get this area open, and the tourists, the curiosity-seekers, will want to come back and see what happened.”

In other developments:

• Mr. Nagin asked mayors across the United States to take censuses of displaced New Orleans residents so the city knows where they are and can communicate with them about reconstruction.

• A total of 482 trailers have been delivered to chemical, natural gas and oil refineries in southwestern Louisiana, authorities said. Workers will live in them while they get the equipment running again.

• Thousands of hurricane survivors who took shelter in the Houston Astrodome packed their possessions yesterday and moved to the Reliant Center, a smaller building, where officials sought to consolidate the dwindling number of refugees who still don’t have permanent housing.

About 3,600 remained in Houston’s four main shelters, down from a high of 27,100.

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