Business Owners Trickle Back in

By Ceci Connolly and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 18, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 17 -- Business owners trickled into New Orleans on Saturday, poking through glass shards and musty offices as the head of the federal relief effort warned in the strongest terms yet that the city is still unsafe for the 180,000 people being invited to return this week by Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

The dire assessment by Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, appointed by President Bush to oversee the Federal Emergency Management Agency's recovery program, places him at odds with a mayor under increasing pressure from the business community to demonstrate New Orleans is on the mend.

"The return of the general population to the city of New Orleans is problematic," Allen, the Coast Guard's chief of staff, said in an interview. The mayor announced on Thursday a phased-in return beginning this weekend with businesses followed soon by three neighborhoods with minimal damage.

Water, sewage and electrical systems are unable to "meet the basic needs of the businesses and residents who return," Allen said in a statement. He urged people "to use extreme caution if they return and to consider delaying their return until safer and more livable conditions are established."

In St. Bernard Parish, officials allowed small groups to return Saturday to retrieve belongings, though many left empty-handed. Authorities estimated that more than half of the 25,000 houses in the parish are damaged beyond repair. "They talk about rebuilding all these homes, but there's no way," said George Ansardi, a general contractor, outside his destroyed house.

Allen is concerned about myriad unresolved health, safety and environmental dangers that could worsen as thousands descend on a city where entire neighborhoods are uninhabitable and cleanup crews have donned masks, rubber gloves and white body suits to protect themselves.

"You need to address these issues and reduce risks before the general population can be let back into the city," he said.

Although Allen acknowledged that the decision to reopen the city ultimately lies with the mayor, he plans to meet with Nagin on Monday to discuss his fears directly. Nagin was visiting his family Saturday in their relocated home in Dallas. In a briefing Friday, his homeland security director and the city attorney acknowledged the poor conditions and lack of basic services, and warned that people entered New Orleans at their own risk.

Allen's unusual decision to openly challenge Nagin's plan to allow thousands of people to return to New Orleans was reminiscent of the early political squabbling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Even now, as the crisis approaches the three-week mark, state and federal leaders often hold simultaneous, dueling news conferences in Baton Rouge, and some have said they are not in contact with Nagin and do not even know the phone numbers of the mayor or his top aides.

On the first day business owners were officially allowed to return, the anticipated mass traffic jams and checkpoint quagmires never materialized. After vowing to conduct detailed checks -- requiring documentation proving that people who returned to the city owned business -- New Orleans seemed to forget its resolve. Many entrances to the city were left unguarded, and cars breezed along streets that still lack working traffic signals. At some checkpoints, the arriving business owners were better informed than the troops guarding the entrances.

Sean Wallace, a mixed-media artist, encountered a stupefied guard on his way in from northwest of the city. "He asked me, 'Why are you coming in?' " Wallace said. "It was the first he'd heard about businesses being let back in."

Wallace, his artist's eye attuned to light and color, encountered a deflating scene of trees stripped raw and piled branches. "New Orleans was always my favorite city to return to -- no matter where you go, New Orleans is always greener and lusher," he said. "There's too much sunlight hitting the ground; everything is brown."

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