NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Under pressure from President Bush and other top federal officials, the mayor suspended the reopening of large portions of the city yesterday and instead ordered nearly everyone out because of the risk of a new round of flooding from a tropical storm on the way.
“If we are off, I’d rather err on the side of conservatism to make sure we have everyone out,” Mayor Ray Nagin said.
The announcement came after repeated warnings from top federal officials – and the president himself – that New Orleans was not safe enough to reopen. Among other things, federal officials warned that Tropical Storm Rita could breach the city’s temporarily patched-up levees and swamp the city all over again.
The news came as the state Health Department raised the death toll from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana by 90 to 736. 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 Nagin’s plan, the lightly damaged Algiers section.
The mayor said he had wanted to reopen some of the city’s signature neighborhoods over the coming week in order to reassure the people of New Orleans that “there was a city to come back to.” He said he had strategically selected ZIP codes that had suffered little or no flooding.
But “now we have conditions that have changed. We have another hurricane that is approaching us,” Nagin said. He warned that the city’s pumping system was not yet running at full capacity and that the levees were still in a “very weak position.”
He ordered residents who circumvented checkpoints and slipped back into the still officially closed parts of the city to leave immediately. Those areas include the historic French Quarter, the Garden District, Uptown and the central business district.
Nagin also urged everyone already settled back into Algiers to be ready to evacuate as early as tomorrow.
Tropical Storm Rita was headed toward the Florida Keys and was expected to become a hurricane, cross the Gulf of Mexico and reach Texas or Mexico by the weekend. But forecasters said it could also veer in Louisiana’s direction.
“We’re watching Tropical Storm Rita’s projected path and, depending on its strength and how much rain falls, everything could change. Residents moving into the area may have to evacuate again,” said Col. Duane Gapinski, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers task force that is draining New Orleans and repairing the levees.
Under the mayor’s plan, Algiers opened yesterday, and Uptown, the Garden District and the French Quarter were supposed to reopen one ZIP code at a time between tomorrow and next Monday, bringing a total about 180,000 of New Orleans’s 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 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, Bush added his voice, saying he had “deep concern” about the possibility that New Orleans’s levees could be breached again.
In addition, Bush said there are 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.