Mayor Suspends Reopening of New Orleans
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  Mayor Suspends Reopening of New Orleans

Associated Press | September 20, 2005

Bars, restaurants and shops had just begun showing signs of life when the mayor suspended the reopening of the city and ordered nearly everyone to leave town again as a new hurricane headed toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The call for another evacuation came after repeated warnings from top federal officials, including President Bush himself, that New Orleans was not safe enough to reopen. Federal officials warned that Tropical Storm Rita _ upgraded to a hurricane Tuesday morning _ could breach the city's weakened levees and swamp New Orleans all over again.

Although Mayor Ray Nagin backed off his plan to begin readmitting residents to parts of the city, a rift between local and federal officials remained.

On Tuesday, Nagin had harsh words for the federal government's top official in the city, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who he said "stepped outside his lane by talking directly to the citizens of New Orleans."

"I respect what federal officials are doing down here, but they do not fully comprehend what it's like to lose your home, to lose everything and not know and to be sitting out there for three weeks. So I think it's important for people to come back and at least take a look," Nagin said on NBC's "Today" show.

Nagin said he does not believe officials will have to enforce the renewed evacuation order. But some business owners who started selling cleaning supplies and serving po' boy sandwiches said they wanted to stay put.

Del Juneau, owner of a Bourbon Street lingerie shop in the once- raucous French Quarter, said it would be premature to order another 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."

The president was scheduled to make his fifth trip to the Hurricane Katrina zone on Tuesday to get an on-the-ground briefing on the cleanup and visit a business trying to get back on its feet.

The death toll in Louisiana jumped by 90 to 736 on Monday, as receding floodwaters allowed search crews to reach more of the city's devastated neighborhoods. The toll across the Gulf Coast was 973.

The mayor reversed course even as residents began trickling back to the first neighborhood opened as part of his plan, the lightly damaged Algiers section.

"Now we have conditions that have changed. We have another hurricane that is approaching us," Nagin said Monday. He warned that the city's pumping system was not yet running at full capacity and that the levees were still very weak.

Nagin ordered residents who slipped back into the still-closed parts of the city to leave immediately. He also urged everyone already settled back into Algiers to be ready to evacuate as early as Wednesday.

The city requested 200 buses to assist in an evacuation. They would start running 48 hours before landfall from the downtown convention center and a stadium in Algiers.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, in a televised address Monday, urged residents of coastal southwestern Louisiana also to make preparations to leave.

"We will pray that Rita will not devastate Louisiana, but today we do not know the answer to that question," Blanco said.

Rita strengthened into a hurricane and lashed the Florida Keys with heavy rain and sustained winds of 75 mph Tuesday. The storm was expected to gain strength as it crossed the warm Gulf of Mexico and could hit Texas over the weekend. But forecasters warned it could veer toward Louisiana instead.

"We're watching Tropical Storm Rita's projected path and, depending on its strength and how much rain falls, everything could change," said Col. Duane Gapinski of the Army Corps of Engineers task force that is draining New Orleans and repairing the levees.

Brig. Gen. Robert Crear said the Corps hopes to have the levees back to being capable of handling a Category 3 storm by June, the start of the next hurricane season.

Under the mayor's original plan, the Garden District, the French Quarter and Uptown 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 the reopening was just the latest example of the lack of federal-local coordination that has marked the disaster practically from the start.

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 that much of the area does not yet have full electricity and still has no drinkable water, 911 service or working hospitals.

With the approach of Rita, the president added his voice, saying he had "deep concern" about the possibility that New Orleans' levees could be breached again.

"The mayor _ you know, he's got this dream about having a city up and running, and we share that dream," Bush said. "But we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles that we all confront in repopulating New Orleans."

About 20 percent of the city is still flooded, down from a high of about 80 percent after Katrina, and the water was expected to be pumped out by Sept. 30.

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