Tuesday, September 20, 2005

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.

“I really need to call for the military,” she told her press secretary between interviews. “And I should have started that in the first call.”

Later that day, she asked the White House for troops, which were dispatched to assist Louisiana National Guard forces.

Mrs. Blanco hesitated again when she met Sept. 2 with Mr. Bush, who offered to have the federal government take over the chaotic evacuation. Mrs. Blanco said she needed 24 hours to make a decision and ultimately rejected the federal offer.

Mr. Nagin later told CNN that Mrs. Blanco and Mr. Bush needed to “get in sync.” But within days, Mr. Nagin and Mrs. Blanco were feuding with each other over whether New Orleans residents should be ordered to leave their homes.

“My mandatory evacuation is still in effect,” Mr. Nagin said Sept. 6.

But Mrs. Blanco refused to enforce the order, saying she needed more time for scientists to test the toxicity of floodwaters, even though health officials were warning that the waters were very dangerous.

“The mayor certainly has ordered that, but the governor — and that would be me — will have to enforce it or implement it,” Mrs. Blanco said Sept. 7.

Mr. Bush will make more trips to the storm-hit areas this week, meeting today with Mississippi business owners and civic leaders in Gulfport and visiting a recovering business in New Orleans.

On Friday and Saturday, he will travel to Alabama, Texas and Arkansas, which have absorbed thousands of refugees from the harder-hit neighboring states.

“The trip will be an opportunity for the president to personally thank some cities and states that have taken in large numbers of our fellow citizens affected by Katrina,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.

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