NEW ORLEANS — Despite warnings that another hurricane could swamp the city all over again, New Orleans residents weren’t rushing to board evacuation buses Wednesday as forecasts raised hopes Hurricane Rita could pass them by.
Only one person showed up at the convention center early Wednesday to catch a bus out, heeding Mayor Ray Nagin’s mandatory evacuation for the estimated 400 to 500 residents were left in neighborhoods on the east bank of the Mississippi River. A voluntary evacuation was called for many more residents in Algiers, a residential area on the west bank that reopened to residents earlier this week.
The modest response came as forecasts called for Hurricane Rita to veer away from the Louisiana coast and hit the central Texas coast by the weekend.
Still, the Army Corps of Engineers continued pumping the water left behind by Hurricane Katrina and readying the city’s fractured levee system in case the new storm took a sharp right turn. And engineers warned residents that the patched-up levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.
“The protection is very tenuous at best,” said Dave Wurtzel, the Corps official responsible for repairing the 17th Street Canal levee, which ruptured during Katrina caused the worst of the floods.
Hoping to get a break
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who declared a state of emergency, told Louisianans to pray for a break from Rita even as the death toll from Katrina in the state rose to 799. That pushed the overall toll across the Gulf Coast states past the 1,000 milestone — to 1,036.
“I just feel so defeated,” said Christina Pascal, manager of a condominium complex in the city’s Warehouse District.
Army Corps spokesman Mitch Frazier said the city was only about 10 percent flooded, down from 80 percent, with just isolated ponds left in sections of the city. In one area of eastern New Orleans, near the Six Flags amusement park, the floodwaters were still 4 to 6 feet deep.
And while the city is still on target to be completely dry by end of the month, Frazier said that all depends on Rita. “We’re making preparations now and prepositioning pumps and doing everything we can possibly do to prepared for another storm.”
Rita could bring a storm surge of 12 feet or more, enough to send water from Lake Pontchartrain pouring back into New Orleans neighborhoods that were only recently pumped dry. Frazier said the Corps expected to decide later Wednesday whether to close off the makeshift barriers erected across the canals to hold back the lake water.
Rita’s renewed threat to the levees forced the mayor to suspend the phased reopening of the city.
‘Now we have to leave again’
When he came home, Darryl Robichaux dragged his plants and patio furniture back onto his balcony. Three days later, another hurricane and a new evacuation order had him pulling them back inside.
“It’s pretty sad. We came home to find out half the neighborhood burned down, now we have to leave again,” Robichaux, 25, said Tuesday of the fires spawned by Katrina. “No telling what we’ll find when we finally get back again.”
Nagin did not say how he planned the enforce the evacuation order. But Interstate 10 eastbound, the main artery into New Orleans from points west and north, was closed Wednesday to keep anyone else from coming in.
And to people who refused to leave, Nagin had this message: “We’re all adults. We really don’t want to take people out by gunpoint. We hope they see the threat... and obey the law.”
The federal government’s top official in the city, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, said the preparations in and around New Orleans included 500 buses for evacuation and enough water and military meals for 500,000 people.
Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of active-duty troops engaged in hurricane relief, grew frustrated with reporters when asked if the government was trying to compensate for its sluggish response to Katrina.
Thinking ahead, not behind
“Let’s not get stuck on the last storm. You’re asking last storm questions for people who are concerned about the future storm. Don’t get stuck on stupid, reporters!” Honore said.
Despite the low turnout for the buses Wednesday, following just two busloads of evacuees Tuesday, officials were hopeful people would respond if Rita proves a threat.
“We’re just being prepared,” said Spc. Amber Mangham, an military police officer stationed outside the convention center. “The majority of people who are back in the city came with their own vehicle. We expect them to go out in their own vehicle.”
Keith Price, a nurse at University Hospital who stayed through Katrina, was already making plans to leave town later Wednesday.
“I don’t think I can stay for another storm,” said Price, who after Katrina waded several miles through chest-deep water to reach a friend’s apartment on higher ground. He’s been staying in the apartment ever since.
“Until you are actually in that water, you really don’t know how frightening it is.”
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