Storm Threat Halts Returns To New Orleans

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 19 -- With Tropical Storm Rita bearing down on the Gulf of Mexico and growing political pressure from federal leaders, Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Monday that New Orleans residents could not return home after all and that any people already in the city should evacuate.

Nagin had been allowing business owners to return over the weekend, and on Monday residents of one dry neighborhood were to return to their homes. But Nagin reversed himself and ordered another mandatory evacuation, to begin Wednesday, just hours after President Bush questioned whether the city was safe enough for people to return.

"We are suspending all reentry into the city of New Orleans as of this moment," Nagin said. The mayor said he backed away from his earlier decision because of fresh fears about Rita, which forecasters said could become a hurricane by Tuesday.

"If we are off, I'd rather err on the side of conservatism to make sure we have everyone out," Nagin said.

The city's levees, overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina, "are still in very weak condition" and many of the pumps used to push the mucky floodwaters back into Lake Pontchartrain are not yet operating, Nagin said. If Rita were to dump nine inches of rain on New Orleans, the result would be "three to four feet of flooding in most parts of the city," he said.

Asked if anything could be done to buttress the levee system before Rita were to strike, Nagin replied: "Just tell people to run."

Current weather projections indicate that Rita, which was threatening Key West, Fla., Monday night, could roar across the Gulf and strike the lower portions of Louisiana by the weekend. If, as some suggest, New Orleans sits on the "eastern side of the storm, we take the brunt of it," Nagin said.

As New Orleans residents faced the grim prospect of an even slower recovery, state officials put the still-rising Katrina death toll at 736 in Louisiana and the overall toll at 973.

Bush administration officials and Nagin have sparred publicly and in private in recent days over the mayor's push to demonstrate that New Orleans will be back in business soon. Last Thursday, he laid out a plan to permit up to 182,000 people to return over the course of 10 days.

Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard chief of staff tapped by Bush to lead the federal response here, said that move was "extremely problematic." Allen said it was dangerous to invite tens of thousands of people into a city with little clean water, a severely compromised sewer system, a manual 911 emergency call system and few hospitals or traffic lights.

Nagin, interviewed over the weekend in Dallas by Fox News, questioned Allen's credentials: "Since I have been away a day or two, maybe he's the new crowned federal mayor of New Orleans."

That prompted Bush to reinforce Allen's message, telling reporters he was taking the unusual step of commenting publicly to be certain the mayor got the message.

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