The Mayor of New Orleans has suspended the reopening of large portions of the city and ordered nearly everyone out because of the risk of a new round of flooding from another tropical storm.
“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 President George Bush 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 again.
The news came as the Louisiana Health Department raised the death toll from Hurricane Katrina 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 neighbourhood opened as part of his plan, the lightly damaged Algiers section.
The mayor said he had wanted to reopen some of the city’s signature neighbourhoods over the coming week to reassure the people of New Orleans that “there was a city to come back to”.
He said he had strategically selected postal 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.
The city requested 200 buses to assist in an evacuation, his office said.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, in a televised address, urged residents of coastal south west Louisiana to also make preparations to leave. More evacuees would strain the shelters in Texas, so she urged people to head for central and northern Louisiana instead.
“We will pray that Rita will not devastate Louisiana, but today we do not know the answer to that question,” she said.
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.
The dispute over the reopening was just the latest example of the lack of federal-local coordination that has marked the disaster 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 or working hospitals.
With the approach of Rita, Bush added his voice, saying he had “deep concern” about the possibility that New Orleans’ levees could be breached again.
“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 repopulating New Orleans.”
Bush’s concerns were echoed by the top federal official in charge in New Orleans, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, who went on one news show after another to warn that city services may not be able to handle the influx of people.
About 20% of the city is still flooded, down from a high of about 80% after Katrina, and the water is expected to be pumped out by September 30.
But officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said the repairs to the levees breached by Katrina are not yet strong enough to prevent flooding in a moderate storm, much less another hurricane.