Once again, the water was the villain. Not the hurricanes with the pretty ladies' names, but the water -- rising in Lake Pontchartrain; gushing over makeshift levees; swallowing up small cars, front steps and patches of Interstate 10, just as it did nearly one month ago.
The city that had finally reached a point that resembled dry was wet again Saturday, the tumultuous winds of Hurricane Rita causing flooding in about 30 percent of New Orleans. This time there was minimal damage to the wealthier neighborhoods along the lake -- about a foot of water. But here on the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, the entryway to the city's impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, the water was back in a horrifying repeat of the pain inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.
"It is just incredible it happened twice," said Police Superintendent P. Edwin Compass, standing atop the bridge after a boat tour of the neighborhood that many officers call home. "I'm at a loss for words."
Katrina had left the city levee system "battered and beaten," in the words of Mayor C. Ray Nagin. And although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked frantically over the past three weeks to repair the breaches, the temporary dikes could not withstand Rita's eight-foot tidal surges.
As Rita lumbered toward the Texas-Louisiana border Friday, the outer reaches of the storm swept away a new layer of gravel, sending water cascading from the Industrial Canal into the Lower Ninth.
"The water rose at a level I don't think anyone anticipated," Nagin said. "We thought we were in pretty good shape. Obviously, Mother Nature had a different idea."
High winds on Saturday slowed a new round of repairs until late afternoon when military helicopters began dropping 3,000-pound sandbags into the stricken dikes. About 20 dump trucks also delivered huge rocks to one section of the dike near the city's shipyard.
But for much of the day, water from the deep, wide shipping channel flowed steadily, turning streets such as Florida Avenue, Jordan Avenue and Tupelo Street into lakes for the second time in a month. Using landmarks as measuring tools, the consensus on the bridge was that the water levels ranged from three feet (fire hydrant height) to 12 feet (second-story windows). The water stretched from the Ninth Ward to Arabi, Chalmette and other communities in St. Bernard Parish, which had already been devastated by Katrina.
It did not appear that the water caused any new deaths, but it did set back the city's recovery effort by about five days, Nagin said. He said he hopes to allow business people and residents of the dry Algiers neighborhood to return within a few days.
To many who made their way through the blustery, deserted city, the view from the bridge resembled the aftermath of Katrina, with one notable absence.
"In Katrina, this whole street was covered with people," said a bare-chested Lenny Trollmar as he biked along the bridge. "People lived on this for days; they just camped out."
Saturday brought a parade of journalists, out-of-town police officers and soldiers. The bridge became a boat launch once again, earning Ted Reine, 22, some cash as he took out one network television crew in his boat. A group of Japanese reporters donned hip waders and snapped photos. A pair from the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to assess the flooding, but they did not have a boat, so they turned around.
For the people of New Orleans, the St. Claude Avenue Bridge -- banged up and under military guard at one end, submerged in muck at the other -- is now the demarcation line between salvageable and not.
"Any structure that had significant flooding and sat for two weeks with water is a structure that pretty much won't survive," Nagin said on Saturday. "Now that they've gone under a second time, it's a huge setback."
It has been obvious to visitors that little, if any, of the historic Lower Ninth can be saved, but Rita forced even loyal residents to concede.
Earl Brown, an officer for the New Orleans Harbor Police, thought after Katrina that he might be able to repair his house at St. Maurice and Royal streets.
"Now, no," he said, standing at the water's edge. "This pretty much sealed it; we'll definitely be moving now."
Even without this weekend's reflooding, the subject of water dominates most conversations here. National Guard troops and Salvation Army volunteers cajole workers to take a free bottle to keep from dehydrating. Hotels are trucking water in or mixing their own chlorine potion to treat it. Guests arriving at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter step into a bleach bath to remove contaminants from their shoes.
Although the city's main water purification plant is operating, numerous breaks in the pipes mean it is not potable by the time it reaches a sink faucet, New Orleans officials said. The sewer system, too, is strained.
On Friday night, to his "great delight," the mayor took a shower in the downtown Hyatt Hotel after making do with sponge baths, he announced.
There was some comfort Saturday that temporary steel plates inserted near two levees blown open by Katrina were holding. Army Corps engineers detected minimal "seepage," as expected, spokesman Mitch Frazier said.
Frazier acknowledged that engineers were watching Lake Pontchartrain, which had risen four feet above the water levels inside the city's flood walls and levees.
By June, the Corps expects to have the levees rebuilt to pre-Katrina height, said Col. Terry Ebbert, New Orleans's homeland security chief. "I'm not so sure pre-storm levels is where you want it," he mused.
Staff writer Guy Gugliotta in Washington contributed to this report.