New Orleans to begin reopening to residents before reconstruction

About half will be able to return to the city in the coming months

Katrina's Wake

September 16, 2005|By Nicholas Riccardi and Ashley Powers | Nicholas Riccardi and Ashley Powers,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS - Even as he announced that the repopulation of his city would begin this weekend, Mayor C. Ray Nagin said yesterday that only half of the residents of New Orleans would be able to return to their homes in the coming months.

Nagin told reporters that the city, devastated Aug. 29 by Hurricane Katrina, would begin reopening, making portions of the city available to about 182,000 residents. The city was forced to evacuate almost all of its nearly half a million people when broken levees made it uninhabitable.

Half the city's homes will have to be demolished, and the city population will probably peak at 250,000 until a huge reconstruction project builds new housing, Nagin said.

"I imagine us building such an incredible city that's so livable and so unique, with all the things people love about New Orleans, that everybody will want to come," the mayor said.

Most water not safe

Returning residents will have to brace themselves, Nagin said. Except in the neighborhood of Algiers, on the west bank of the Mississippi, the water is not safe for drinking or bathing. Two hospitals will be open for emergency care only.

Businesses will be able to return to Algiers tomorrow, and some residents can return Monday, provided they obey a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Then parts of the Uptown neighborhood and the central business district will open during the week, with the French Quarter scheduled to open Sept. 26.

"The city of New Orleans, starting this week, will start to breathe again," Nagin said.

Officials said that the French Quarter could be ready sooner but that technicians are performing extensive testing to ensure no stray gas leaks could cause a fire in the tightly packed district of old wooden buildings.

"We want to make sure we don't lose a large amount of what we cherish," Nagin said.

Checkpoints

The mayor said checkpoints will ensure that residents do not venture into flooded areas. The city health department said the only health threat is E. coli bacteria, which officials said are pervasive in the standing water.

Nagin said that returning life to the dry parts of the city was the best way to ensure there would be a city that all the displaced residents could return to.

"Our strategy is to repopulate the city in the safest areas first and get enough critical mass going that the economic energy starts to flow," Nagin said.

Then the city will turn to what the mayor called "the biggest urban reconstruction project ever."

New Orleans residents would have first crack at those reconstruction jobs, and then the destroyed parts of the city could be rebuilt to accommodate them.

Cleanup

The cleanup of debris, mud and muck is continuing. Between 40 percent and 50 percent of the city remains underwater, but the pumping operation is going well, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Spokesman Daniel Hitchings said he is optimistic about when the Corps would complete removing the water. He said the job was going well because of a lack of rainfall and the return of more pumps. Twenty-three of 174 permanent pumps are working, as are 40 other pumps.

He said he expected the water to be gone from Chalmette/St. Bernard Parish by Sept. 20; Orleans east, the extended Chalmette area, and north Plaquemines by Sept. 30; Orleans by Oct. 2; and south Plaquemines by Oct. 18.

Little protection

As residents return to the New Orleans area, their homes will be at risk of flooding because levee breaches will not be completely repaired until June, Hitchings said.

"Any storm surge would enter right back in. ... Don't fool yourself. There isn't any significant level of protection," he said.

Mosquito spraying to prevent the spread of disease continued in the greater New Orleans area today, with Washington Parish scheduled for today and Tangipahoa Parish for Saturday.

Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux of the Louisiana National Guard told reporters in Baton Rouge that New Orleans was "the safest it's been in a long time," as numerous law enforcement agencies prepare for residents to begin returning to the city.

Thibodeaux said that keeping returning people orderly would be difficult. "People are going to realize for the first time that they lost everything," he said.

The Guard will work with the New Orleans Police Department to keep order, prevent theft and monitor the safety of damaged buildings, he said.

Congress has appropriated more than $62 billion for the emergency response to Katrina, which cut a wide swath of destruction and death through five Southern states.

The number of deaths stood at 454 in New Orleans and at 710 in the region, but officials expect the toll to climb as bodies are found during the cleanup.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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