- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — The mayor yesterday suspended residents’ re-entry into the city and ordered nearly everyone out, fearing a new round of flooding from an incoming tropical storm, just as about 90 percent of floodwaters had been pumped out.

“If we are off, I’d rather err on the side of conservatism to make sure we have everyone out,” said Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who was implementing a plan to open large parts of city, including the French Quarter, over the objections of federal officials.

President Bush and other top federal officials yesterday said New Orleans was not safe to reopen, warning that, among other things, Tropical Storm Rita could breach the city’s temporarily patched-up levees and swamp the city all over again.

News of Mr. Nagin’s reversal came as the death toll from Hurricane Katrina reached 973 across the Gulf Coast, with an increase in Louisiana by 90 to 736, and as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials predicted that they would have the floodwaters removed from the city by Sept. 30 — about five months faster than initial estimates.

“We have another hurricane that is approaching us,” Mr. Nagin said, warning that the city’s pumping system was not running at full capacity and that the levees were still in a “very weak position.”

He ordered residents who circumvented checkpoints and slipped back into the still officially closed parts of the city to leave immediately. Those areas include the historic French Quarter, the Garden District, Uptown and the central business district.

Mr. Nagin also urged everyone already settled back into Algiers to be ready to evacuate as early as tomorrow. The city requested 200 buses to help if necessary.

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 also veer toward Louisiana.

“We’re watching Tropical Storm Rita’s projected path and, depending on its strength and how much rain falls, everything could change. Residents moving into the area may have to evacuate again,” said Col. Duane Gapinski, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers task force that is draining New Orleans and repairing the levees.

Under the mayor’s plan, Algiers opened yesterday, and Uptown, the Garden District and the French Quarter were supposed to reopen one ZIP code at a time between Wednesday and next Monday, bringing about 180,000 of New Orleans’ half-million inhabitants back.

The dispute over reopening large parts of the city was just the latest example of the lack of federal-local coordination that has marked the disaster practically from the start.

Mr. 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 that such a move could be a few weeks premature, pointing out much of the area does not have full electricity, drinkable water, 911 service or working hospitals.

With the approach of Rita, Mr. Bush added his voice, saying he had “deep concern” about the possibility that New Orleans’ levees could be breached again.

Mr. Bush said White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had been pressing the matter with Mr. Nagin. The concerns were also echoed by the top federal official in charge in New Orleans, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who appeared on one news show after another to warn that city services might not be able to handle the influx of people.

Before reversing course yesterday, a clearly agitated Mr. Nagin snapped that Adm. Allen had apparently made himself “the new crowned federal mayor of New Orleans.”

It was not known whether Mr. Nagin met with Adm. Allen, who said this weekend that he intended to have a frank discussion with the mayor yesterday.

About 13 percent of the city is still flooded, down from a high of about 80 percent after Katrina hit, a top Army Corps of Engineers official told the Los Angeles Times.

But officials said the repairs to the levees breached by Katrina are not strong enough to prevent flooding in a moderate storm, much less another hurricane.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, in a televised address yesterday, also urged residents of coastal southwestern 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,” she said.

In the raucous French Quarter, about a half-mile from where Mr. Nagin made his announcement, businesses were getting up and running and 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.”

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