The mammoth tasks of restoring power to much of New Orleans and removing heaps of debris, interrupted when Hurricane Rita rammed the Gulf Coast, resumed Sunday as the mayor pushed his plan to reopen parts of the city this week.
Even those areas newly flooded this weekend by Rita could be pumped dry again within a week after levee damage is repaired, far sooner than initially predicted, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman said Sunday.
“All indications are all operations are getting back to normal,” said Ted Monette, deputy federal coordinating officer for Katrina recovery.
Monette said federal officials had been coordinating with Mayor Ray Nagin’s effort to begin allowing evacuated residents to return and were supportive of his plan.
Workers dumped rock and sandbags into breaches in the city’s Industrial Canal throughout the night and were expected to complete the repair Sunday, said Mitch Frazier, a spokesman for the corps.
Entergy, Louisiana’s biggest power company, was assessing new damage that Rita caused for customers in the southwestern part of the state, but work also continued in New Orleans, said Chanel Lagarde, a company spokesman. More than 200,000 customers still lack power in the New Orleans area, many of them in badly damaged areas.
Entergy has restored power to most of the city’s central business district, and hopes to tackle work in the French Quarter early this week, he said.
Revised timeline for drying out
The storm surge created by Rita eroded levee repairs made after Hurricane Katrina and sent water surging back into the already devastated Ninth Ward. Once the breach is closed, engineers now believe the area could be pumped dry in a week, Frazier said.
Federal officials had said Saturday it would take two to three weeks to pump out the water delivered by Rita.
The water level in the Ninth Ward already had dropped dramatically on Sunday, a day after Rita blew ashore along the Louisiana-Texas state line, and the sun was shining.
“It looks like the weather is improving,” said Frazier. “That’s good news.”
Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Sunday she would ask the federal government for at least $1.5 billion for infrastructure repairs and $20.2 billion to protect New Orleans from future flooding after the passage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
‘So dependent on the weather’
The Corps of Engineers trucked rocks and airlifted giant sandbags to plug the hole in the Industrial Canal levee, but the corps’ commander on the ground was leery about how stable the makeshift repairs to the city’s fragile flood-control system would prove.
“It’s so dependent on the weather,” said Col. Richard Wagenaar, the corps’ district chief in New Orleans.
Signs of renewed life in the battered city included widespread utility trucks restoring electricity and restaurants seeking customers, such as the Slim Goodies diner in the Garden District.
“You wanna burger?” owner Kappa Horn called out to the steady stream of police and others who came by.
Horn’s diner doesn’t have electricity, but she’s been using supplies driven in from Baton Rouge and New Orleans’ West Bank to serve pancakes and burgers for more than a week. She closed for two days when Rita came through.
“The city is not going to survive unless it’s got people in it,” Horn said. “I want to be part of rebuilding my city.”
Caution on return
On Saturday, Nagin renewed his delayed plans to allow some residents to return to the drier parts of the city. He said he thought the dry districts would eventually support a population of between 250,000 and 300,000.
Nagin said he wanted residents of the Algiers neighborhood, which has electricity and water, to start returning as early as Monday or Tuesday, followed by people in other ZIP codes.
“We’re talking about people who are mobile. We’re not asking people to come back who have a lot of kids, a lot of senior citizens,” he said. “That’s going to be the reality of New Orleans moving forward.”
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal disaster effort in the city, sounded a cautionary note Sunday about any return to New Orleans. The city can continue allowing business operators to return to unaffected areas of the city and letting residents return to the West Bank and the Algiers area, Allen said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“Where the mayor needs some thoughtful approach to is the areas that have been reflooded and the areas that may remain uninhabitable for safety, health and other reasons,” the admiral said. “And I think a timetable associated with that still needs to be worked out.”
Estimate of complete levee repair: June
The Corps of Engineers estimates the city’s system of levees will not be completely repaired until June. With a month left in the hurricane season, there’s no guarantee that another storm will not undo the next round of hard work to bring New Orleans back to life.
Elsewhere in the city, flooding continued from lesser levee problems, heavy rain and Lake Pontchartrain, which lapped over the seawall on Friday and remained above its normal level.
The renewed flooding in the Ninth Ward brought a stoic response from many locals helping to clean up a pub on St. Charles Avenue.
“They need to start getting people back into the city to do all the work that needs to be done,” Neuell Griffith said.
A handful of evacuees returned to New Orleans aboard a flight from Cincinnati.
“You go from joy to disbelief to sadness to just being tired, to just wanting to go home,” said Paul Jordan. “Our goal is to help rebuild the city, and we’re going to do whatever we can.”
But not everyone headed back to New Orleans plans to stay.
Haney Joudeh has resettled in Chicago and was coming to take photos of his clothing store, which he heard was looted, for the insurance company.
“It’s like starting a life all over. That’s it for me. There’s nothing left,” Joudeh said.