Under pressure from President Bush and other top federal officials, the mayor Monday suspended the reopening of large portions of the city over the next few days because of the threat of a new round of flooding from a tropical storm.
“I am concerned about this hurricane getting in the gulf. ... 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 the president himself — that the city was unsafe.
The mayor said his original plan was never intended to put people at risk.
“Now we have conditions that have changed. We have another hurricane that is approaching us,” he said. He warned that the city’s pumping system was not running at full capacity and that its levee system is still in a “very weak position.”
Mayor: Pumping facilities aren’t 100 percent
Nagin said that he was suspending the reopening of the city in large part because of Tropical Storm Rita, which is expected to strengthen to a hurricane later Monday as it makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico.
He said the city's pumping facilities aren't at full capacity — and that if there's anything above a 3-foot storm surge, there will be significant flooding.
Nagin spoke hours after residents of the Algiers neighborhood, across the river from the French Quarter, began to return. Under plans announced last week, two other neighborhoods were supposed to be repopulated later this week.
The return of residents Monday had prompted federal officials, including President Bush, to voice concerns that the city isn't yet ready to receive them.
Defended position earlier
Earlier, Nagin defended his decision to let people back in. “The citizens of New Orleans deserve the opportunity to see what they have left and what they can salvage,” Nagin told Fox News in response to warnings from the federal official in charge in New Orleans, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen.
“I’m a little surprised the admiral came out publicly on this,” he added. “Maybe since I’ve been away a day or two, maybe he’s the new crowned federal mayor of New Orleans.”
Bush on Monday questioned the plan to allow residents to return, saying there are too many concerns about additional flooding and safety in the city.
“We want this city to re-emerge. As I said, I can’t imagine America without a vibrant New Orleans. It’s just a matter of timing,” Bush said. “We’re cautious about encouraging people to return at this moment of history.”
Bush cites environmental hazards
Bush said there are significant environmental concerns. New Orleans still lacks drinkable water, and there are fears about the contamination levels in the remaining floodwaters and the muck left behind in drained areas of the city.
“We have made our position loud and clear,” Bush said. “The mayor is working hard. The mayor — you know, he’s got this dream about having a city up and running, and we share that dream. But we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles that we all confront in repopulating New Orleans.”
The president said he “absolutely” would intervene personally on the matter with Nagin and that he meant for his public comments to make sure that the mayor gets the point. White House chief of staff Andy Card also has been pressing the matter with Nagin.
But Bush stressed that Allen, head of the federal government’s hurricane response who was delivering the concerns to Nagin in person on Monday, was the administration’s primary voice.
“The mayor needs to hear him. So do the people of New Orleans,” Bush said.
Algiers creeps back to life
Algiers, a neighborhood that is situated across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans and saw little damage from Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, was the first to be reopened to residents, if only briefly.
The Uptown neighborhood, the Garden District and the historic French Quarter had been set to reopen at Nagin's invitation, allowing a total of about one-third of New Orleans’ half-million inhabitants back.
John Schwab, 31, came back to Algiers with his brother and encountered no checkpoint getting into the neighborhood, despite warnings from the mayor that police would be checking IDs. Schwab owns a janitorial service that had contracts with movie studios.
But they have all pulled out of New Orleans because of the storm. “I'll probably have to look for a job in construction,” he said. “That's about the only thing around.”
A few gas stations and convenience stores were open, but little else. Grady Shavers, the manager of the local Winn-Dixie supermarket, said he had hoped to be open by Monday, but it took longer than he anticipated to clear out the spoiled food and other debris.
“We're now shooting for Thursday,” Shavers said. “Salvage crews already took everything out of the store. That was a nasty job.”
Tropical Storm Rita causing concern
Bush said there is “deep concern” about the possibility that , which was headed toward the Florida Keys on Monday, could drop more rain on New Orleans and breach the city's levees again.
Before Nagin's change of policy, Allen, head of the federal government's hurricane response, warned over the weekend — and again on Monday morning — that city services may not be able to handle the influx of people.
He cited a lack of drinkable water and 911 service, and expressed concern that another storm could cause the patchwork repairs to New Orleans’ levees to fail and bring more flooding.
“Our concern is when you have the general population returning in large numbers without the proper infrastructure to support them,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show.
“Everybody wants the city of New Orleans to be restarted,” Allen said Monday on CBS’s “The Early Show.” “The mayor has a vision. We agree with that vision. The discussion we’re having with the mayor is over the timing of re-entry and how to do it safely.”
Asked when it would be safe for people to return, he said, “We know potable water will probably be restored soon and the levees will be fixed, so that may mean days, weeks.”
The vice president of the national hospital accreditation organization also cautioned against reopening parts of the city, saying several hospitals probably were damaged beyond repair, while others may try to rush back into business before conditions are safe.
“Essentially the health care infrastructure of New Orleans is gone — it no longer exists,” said Joe Cappiello, who had just completed a three-day mission to the city for the Illinois-based Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
Although the city has more than a dozen hospitals, none has resumed normal operations. Officials at Children’s Hospital, which Nagin had hoped would be ready in time for the planned return of residents to the Uptown neighborhood, said they may need 10 more days to prepare.
Emergency rooms needed
The Garden District’s Tour Infirmary, one of the city’s largest hospitals, announced plans to reopen on Wednesday, when residents are due to start moving back there. That would make it the first hospital to reopen since the storm. Cleaning crews were busy Sunday carting out debris and readying the hospital.
Dr. Brobson Lutz, New Orleans’ former health director and an assistant coroner for Orleans Parish, said the hospitals clearly will not be up to accreditation standards, but the city still needs them open as soon as possible.
“I don’t believe the people in New Orleans or the doctors give a hoot whether they accredit our hospitals or not,” Lutz said. “We need to have our emergency rooms open so that if people returning need emergency care for trauma or infections or other things, they can get it.”
City, suburbs reawaken
Some city residents returned over the weekend and many said they met little resistance at checkpoints. Power is scheduled to return to the French Quarter by Friday and to Uptown by next Monday, a spokesman for Entergy New Orleans said.
In the New Orleans suburbs, a few gas stations were open in Metairie, along with a handful of coffee shops and burger joints. Officials gave the all-clear for the return to neighboring Jefferson Parish on Sunday.
“It feels good to come out again,” said Rolita Smith, 38, who ventured out to buy a bottle of whiskey for her cousin’s birthday.
Euthanasia during Katrina?
Cappiello also said he had heard unconfirmed reports that some doctors may have euthanized some critically ill patients who could not be moved out, rather than leaving them to die from flooding or neglect.
“There was a whisper about that when we were down there,” he said. “It may prove to have some viability to it. Sometimes horrible decisions like that have to be made.”
The flooded areas of New Orleans continued shrinking over the weekend, but crews still searched by boat for the dead. The state Health Department raised the death toll from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana by 90 to 736. The toll across the Gulf Coast was 973.
Former President Clinton, speaking on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, put some of the blame for the plight of the poor in New Orleans on the Bush administration.
“You can’t have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up, and when you tell people to go do something they don’t have the means to do, you’re going to leave the poor out,” Clinton said, referring to the many people who did not have transportation to evacuate before the storm.
‘Short-term impact’ seen on budget deficit
Meanwhile, the White House said Monday costs related to Hurricane Katrina will have a short-term impact on the U.S. budget deficit, adding that it still believed the deficit would be cut in half by 2009.
“The costs we’re talking about related to Katrina are going to have a short-term impact on the deficit. They’re one-time costs. But we believe we can continue to meet the president’s commitment to halve the deficit by 2009,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The White House and Congress are wrestling with how to pay for the cost of rebuilding and relief efforts in the aftermath of the hurricane that some see as topping $200 billion.