New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin on Monday suspended the return of the stricken city’s population as a new storm bore down on the coast devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Nagin said the levees breached by the August 29 superstorm were still too weak to withstand a new beating as Tropical Storm Rita strengthened and headed for the United States coast from the Atlantic.
”We are suspending all re-entry into the city of New Orleans as of this moment,” Nagin told reporters.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who was heavily criticised over her handling of the Katrina disaster, warned citizens to be ready to leave coastal areas.
”We are taking Rita very, very seriously,” she said, adding that her latest information suggested the storm would intensify into a hurricane later on Monday.
”I want citizens who are in the coastal parishes to start making preparations to leave now,” Blanco said.
At the same time, authorities in Florida ordered the evacuation of several islands in the Keys chain off the south coast because of Rita.
The storm could hit the Gulf Coast by Thursday and Nagin warned people who have already returned to be ready to evacuate again.
His decision to let about 180Ã‚Â 000 residents return by the end of the month had drawn criticism from federal authorities and President George Bush on Monday warned against allowing people to rush back to the city devastated by floods caused by Katrina.
More than 950 people were killed by the storm and floods and only a few families had re-entered New Orleans on Monday as relief crews raced to restore power, water and sewage pipes wrecked by Hurricane Katrina.
Government leaders had criticised Nagin’s scheme as too ambitious because New Orleans remains unsafe.
Some districts remain under water. Most of the others lack clean water and a reliable power supply, and there is also a high health risk.
Bush, who was to visit the region again this week, signalled his own concern, telling reporters in Washington ”we’re cautious about encouraging people to return at this moment in history”.
”It’s just a matter of timing, and there’s issues to be dealt with,” Bush said.
Nagin defended his plan, however, saying ”my thought has always been that if we have this many resources in the city, working cooperatively, then we can correct just about any situation that was out there”.
”But now we have conditions that have changed,” Nagin said. ”We have another hurricane that’s approaching us.”
In Algiers, on the west bank of the Mississippi, a small number of families returned to their abandoned homes in cars and trucks.
But residents were dismayed that they may have to flee again.
”After the experience that we’ve had … we’re going to take this seriously,” said Andrew Svirsky (51), who was clearing branches from his yard with his wife Lacey Howell. Their home had no damage.
During Hurricane Katrina, the two stayed, helping patients in a hospital where Howell works, but were evacuated by a helicopter a few days later and only returned home on Monday.
This time, ”If the mayor says there’s a mandatory evacuation, we’re leaving,” said Howell (49).
Compared with other areas of New Orleans, Algiers is largely unscathed, and has power and potable water.
Returning residents counted themselves the lucky ones.
”I’m thankful I had a home to get to,” said Joyce Johnson (70). ”A lot of people, they don’t have anything. The Lord spared Algiers.”
Jacob Paul (33) and his wife, Hzadit (26), returned with their four children, including a five-month-old baby. They had spent the past three weeks in a precarious, gypsy-like existence, roaming from location to location across the south-eastern US.
”We’re just glad to be home. We couldn’t take it no more,” said Hzadit, adding firmly: ”We’re staying. We ain’t going nowhere.”
Other districts had been due to reopen from Tuesday. At the weekend, business people were readmitted to the city’s French Quarter and other central districts.
But only a trickle of entrepreneurs showed up, apparently discouraged by the mountainous problems of infrastructure, especially electricity supplies, which are essential to provide air conditioning in New Orleans’s sultry heat.
Many were dismayed to find their businesses had been trashed by looters who took over the city after its streets flooded.
On top of the hundreds killed, about one million people left their homes and about 100Ã‚Â 000 are still living in shelters.
As for the economic cost, estimates of the final tab remain speculative, with some figures in the region of $200-billion. But White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said on Monday that there would be only a ”short-term impact” on the US economy. — AFP