NEW ORLEANS -- Federal officials overseeing the city's reconstruction said yesterday that New Orleans is too dangerous and its living conditions too fragile to open it to evacuated residents, setting up a showdown with city leaders who want to allow 180,000 or more people into the city beginning today.
Mayor Ray Nagin issued a statement saying his plan to let more than a third of the residents back into the ravaged city "properly balances safety concerns and the needs of our citizens to begin rebuilding their lives." But Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the federal recovery efforts, urged Nagin to back off his plan, so that power companies and environmental specialists could have more time to repair and evaluate the city's damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Allen said officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that New Orleans is not ready for a large influx of people.
"There are issues about lack of potable water; there are basic services that are not in place; we are still trying to constitute a 911 service," he said yesterday on CBS' Face the Nation.
Reports from the EPA show high levels of E. Coli bacteria in the floodwaters, which still have a grip on much of the city. And with limited emergency rescue service and three working hospitals in the area, local doctors and nurses say the government would be ill-equipped to respond to traffic accidents and other emergencies.
Nagin and Allen are expected to meet today to discuss their disagreements. Allen made it clear that the mayor has sole authority to allow residents to return but also stressed that he had consulted with the federal government's environmental, health and emergency management specialists before reaching his position.
"My hope is we will sit down with the mayor, have a very frank conversation and develop a logical plan forward to repopulate the city," Allen said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Local government officials throughout the New Orleans area have been eager to let residents back into damaged neighborhoods, not just to restore a sense of community, but also so local workers can participate in the huge - and lucrative - cleanup efforts. Neighboring Plaquemines Parish issued a call to local businesses yesterday urging them to pursue cleanup and repair contracts before all the work is performed by outsiders.
New Orleans officials also note that their plan to repopulate would initially open only the Algiers section south of the Mississippi River, which was not damaged extensively, followed by areas in and around the French Quarter and central business district, which are in similarly good shape.
The city was largely without electricity, working traffic lights or drinking water yesterday, and gas stations and grocery stores are virtually nonexistent. But some residents have begun their return, and they met fewer National Guard and police blockades yesterday than in recent weeks.
"People want to get back to their lives and their belongings," said Pamela Robinson, who flew in yesterday from a shelter in West Virginia to return to her apartment near the Uptown section of the city.
Besides the environmental and safety hazards in New Orleans, federal officials say they are also worried about the compromised state of the city's levees that hold back water from Lake Pontchartrain. The fractured levees were responsible for the flooding that crippled the city, and the breaches are plugged with only sandbags and debris.
The possibility of a second disaster became a particular concern with the development of a tropical storm that is expected to slice between Cuba and the Florida Keys in the next three days and reach hurricane strength in the Gulf of Mexico by Wednesday.
Tourists were told to evacuate the lower Florida Keys yesterday because the storm, named Rita, moved toward the low-lying island chain, the Associated Press reported.
Before residents are allowed to return, Allen said, he wants a detailed plan in place for evacuating them again if another emergency arises.
Cleanup activity continued throughout the French Quarter and the central business district, and most sections of the city saw more people than has been common since the city was evacuated.
Sandy Patterson drove to her Dixie Chicken & Ribs restaurant in the upscale Lakeview neighborhood, one of the last to dry out, and found that the water had flooded the one-story building up to its ceiling. She vowed to rebuild but couldn't imagine how many months or years she would need to get things back the way they were.