New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin is inviting residents of his hurricane-wracked city to return by next week, as hundreds of thousands remained homeless along the Gulf of Mexico.
”Come in, inspect your property, if you want to stay, you’re free to stay,” Nagin said on Wednesday.
”We’re also allowing people to come in to look and leave, and those areas will be the areas that are flooded.”
He had earlier invited residents back to the city’s least-flooded neighborhoods, a first step in repopulating the city. And he urged those returning to devastated homes to leave after checking their property.
If the first phase goes well, he said, residents in the rest of the city, except the twice-flooded Lower Ninth Ward, will be allowed back home on October 5, more than one month after Hurricane Katrina struck the city.
Nagin wanted to start repopulating his city last week, but was forced to suspend his programme as Hurricane Rita swirled across the Gulf of Mexico. That storm largely spared the city, except the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward which suffered fresh flooding on Saturday.
State health officials however warned returning residents that repopulating the city posed serious risks.
”The two things that are absolutely necessary to ensure public health — clean drinking water and proper sewage systems — simply are not available in the east bank area of New Orleans at this time,” said Fred Cerise, state secretary of health and hospitals.
”People who re-enter the city may be exposed to diseases such as e Coli, salmonella or diarrhoea illness if they do not allow time for the necessary inspections to ensure public health and safety.”
The federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention added that mould growth promoted by flooding posed a danger, even in homes which appeared undamaged.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans along the Gulf of Mexico coast remain homeless in the wake of the two huge storms, as US leaders continue to spar over the government’s response to the disaster.
The Katrina death toll rose to 1Ã‚Â 132 on Wednesday as 11 more fatalities were confirmed in Louisiana, authorities said. There are 10 confirmed deaths from Rita.
Louisiana authorities said they have only been able to identify 340 of the 896 confirmed killed in the state.
Thirty-two bodies were released to their families, as rescuers in helicopters and boats continued to patrol for victims throughout the flooded lowlands and devastated communities.
Rita failed to deliver a catastrophe on the scale of the first storm but it has fed the criticism of US authorities’ response to natural disasters.
Hundreds of thousands of evacuees were stranded on clogged highways when the hurricane hit, while others found themselves marooned in the disaster zone with little assistance.
In Washington, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco pleaded with US legislators in a congressional hearing to speed up aid for her state, which has suffered devastating damage from two hurricanes in less than a month.
”Hurricane Rita has only added to the destruction and misery of our people,” she said.
But Blanco would not be drawn into a controversy that erupted when the former top federal disaster official, Michael Brown, accused her of botching the response to Katrina.
On her first visit to Washington since Katrina flattened coastal areas in her state and two others, Blanco said jobs are desperately needed to lure back the huge numbers who fled the massive storm.
”We need jobs to bring our people home and restore our economy,” Blanco said.
Separately, Gary La Grange, president and chief executive of The Port of New Orleans, told the Senate Finance Committee that it would take ”months if not years to fully recover” from the storms.
The port, a key to US maritime operations, is operating at just 20% capacity and needs repairs costing about $1,7-billion, La Grange said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers and officials of President George Bush’s administration wrangled over how to pay the immense recovery bill, and how best to get that money to those who need it as questions arose about some of the aid that has already flowed.
Even some of Bush’s own Republicans are worried the bill will cause the federal deficit to spiral, and are pushing for a review of other spending projects already approved. Others want to investigate whether billions of dollars in government funds for relief aid are being wasted.
The double blows from Katrina and Rita will likely shave up to one percentage point off US third-quarter economic growth, but not cause a recession, a senior White House adviser said.
”There are various estimates about the third quarter… numbers between half and one percent,” said Ben Bernacke, chairperson of the White House Council of Economic Advisors. – AFP