New Orleans to stay off-limits

Rita forces re-entry plan cancellation

Katrina's Wake

September 20, 2005|By Arthur Hirsch, Robert Little and Frank Roylance | Arthur Hirsch, Robert Little and Frank Roylance,Sun reporters

NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Ray Nagin bowed yesterday to the potential threat of a new hurricane and the insistence of President Bush and other federal officials in calling off the reopening of large sections of the city.

Tropical Storm Rita represented a "new event" that forced a change in the plans he outlined late last week, the mayor said.

"If we are off, I'd rather err on the side of conservatism so that we make sure that we have everybody out."

Bush and Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's operation in New Orleans, had expressed strong reservations about Nagin's plan, which by Monday would have reopened neighborhoods that once accommodated about 180,000 people, or just over a third of the city's population.

Nagin said he had announced the re-entry plan for areas where there was little or no flooding - Uptown, the French Quarter, the Garden District and Algiers - feeling that "it was very important for our citizens to start to come back to this city and to feel like they had a city to come back to."

Residents of Algiers, just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, had been invited to return beginning yesterday. But Nagin urged those who came back to be ready to evacuate as early as tomorrow. The city, he said, could not handle another big storm.

"Our levee systems are still in a very weak condition," Nagin said. "Our pumping stations are not at full capacity, and any type of storm that heads this way and hits us will put the East Bank of Orleans Parish in very significant harm's way."

The 17th named-storm of the season, Rita had top sustained winds of 70 miles per hour yesterday and was gaining strength in the Bahamas.

The storm was expected to become a hurricane overnight. Its forecast track would take it through the Florida Straits and into the Gulf of Mexico by early tomorrow.

Jack Beven, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said wind and sea surface temperatures favored the storm developing into the season's fifth "major" hurricane, with winds over 110 miles per hour.

The storm was expected to head west-northwest across the gulf for two or three days.

"The track is uncertain after that," Beven said. Landfall could occur anywhere from southern Texas to western Louisiana by the weekend.

"That's a pretty broad sweep," he said. "There's a lot of uncertainty on the end of the forecast track."

Yesterday, officials in Galveston, Texas urged a voluntary evacuation, starting today.

The worst-case scenario for New Orleans would be a landfall just west of where Katrina came ashore on Aug. 29. That would put the city and its weakened levee system in the storm's northeast quadrant, and in its strongest winds and storm surge.

With the approach of Rita, Bush said he had "deep concern" about the possibility that New Orleans' patched-together levees could be breached again.

Bush also pointed out significant environmental concerns. New Orleans still lacks safe drinking water, and there are fears about the contamination in the remaining floodwaters and the muck left behind in drained areas of the city.

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

Bush said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card had been pressing the matter with Nagin. The concerns were echoed by Vice Admiral Allen, who went on one news show after another to warn that city services may not be able to handle the influx of people.

Before reversing course yesterday, a clearly agitated Nagin snapped that Allen had apparently made himself "the new crowned federal mayor of 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. But officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said the repairs to levees breached by Katrina are not yet strong enough to prevent flooding in a moderate storm.

The state Department of Health and Hospitals said yesterday that the death toll in Louisiana had climbed to 736. The toll across the Gulf Coast was 973.

At an Interstate 10 checkpoint of traffic heading into the city from the north yesterday, cars were backed up for two hours. Tractor-trailers, emergency vehicles and National Guard trucks shared the highway with cars towing trailers full of hurricane gear and pickup trucks with their beds loaded with water, cleaning materials and coolers. It was clear that at least some of the traffic was headed to sections of the city that have not yet officially opened. For many residents, Nagin's announcement echoed the confusion of the first few days of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

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