- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — The mayor of New Orleans has set up an “extremely problematic” timeline for allowing residents to return to the city, which is still threatened by a weakened levee system, a lack of drinkable water and heavily polluted floodwaters, the head of the federal relief effort said yesterday.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen said federal officials have worked with Mayor C. Ray Nagin and support his vision for repopulating the hurricane-ravaged city, but he called Mr. Nagin’s idea to return as many as 180,000 people to New Orleans in the next week both “extremely ambitious” and “extremely problematic.”

“Our intention is to work with the mayor … in a very frank, open and unvarnished manner,” Adm. Allen told the Associated Press.

Mr. Nagin has announced that the city’s Algiers section, the Garden District and the French Quarter would reopen over the next week and a half, bringing back more than one-third of the city’s half-million inhabitants.

Adm. Allen said a prime public health concern is the tap water, which in most of the city remains unfit for drinking and bathing. He said he was concerned about the difficulties of communicating the risk of using that water to people who return and might run out of the bottled water they brought along.

“The water that’s there is only good for firefighting and flushing,” he said.

Another concern, Adm. Allen said, was the risk of another storm hitting the region, threatening an already delicate levee system and potentially requiring residents to be evacuated again.

“Something less than a Category 4 storm is going to present significant issues that might require the evacuation of the general population. You want to make sure you have your arms around how you will do that,” he said.

Adm. Allen called on the mayor to be “mindful of the risks” and said he would inform Mr. Nagin of his concerns when they meet tomorrow.

The admiral was not the only official with doubts about the mayor’s plans.

Mr. Nagin’s homeland security director, Terry Ebbert, backed away from the mayor’s promise Friday, saying only that the city would assess the situation in the French Quarter from “day to day.”

Meanwhile, some business owners were being allowed back into the city yesterday to get a head start on opening bars, stores and restaurants.

But many residents, from the cast-iron balconies of the French Quarter to the white-columned mansions of the Garden District, said it will be weeks, if not months, before they are ready again for partying until dawn.

“We don’t want a bunch of tourists in here while we’re trying to get our homes together, get our businesses together,” said Sandra Cimini, whose family owns a bar on Chartres Street.

Traffic was already heavy at checkpoints leading into Orleans Parish, where many were turned away if they had not managed to acquire the special business permits the city was issuing by fax in recent days.

The city was relaxing requirements over the weekend so that anyone with documentation showing they had businesses in specified ZIP codes could enter.

Residents who return tomorrow to Algiers, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, will return to relative normalcy. While debris from trees and roofs still litters many neighborhoods, the area never flooded, the water is clean and electricity has been restored to most places.

But on the east side, home to the sections most tourists know best, it is not known when the water will be safe for drinking or bathing.

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