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Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Orleans mayor suspends re-entry plan as Rita threatens

NEW ORLEANS — With Tropical Storm Rita bearing down on the Gulf of Mexico and growing political pressure from federal leaders, Mayor Ray Nagin yesterday suspended his plan to quickly repopulate this storm-ravaged city, calling instead for another mandatory evacuation.

The stunning reversal came even as citizens began to trickle into the city to clear debris from their homes and restart their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Nagin had been allowing business owners to return over the weekend, and residents of the city's Algiers neighborhood began to return to their homes yesterday.

"We are suspending all re-entry into the city of New Orleans as of this moment," Nagin said. "If we are off, I'd rather err on the side of conservatism to make sure we have everyone out."

The mayor said he was backing away from his earlier decision because of fresh fears about Rita, which forecasters said could become a hurricane by today.

Current projections indicate that the storm, which was threatening Key West, Fla., last night, could roar across the Gulf and strike lower portions of Louisiana by the weekend. If, as some suggest, New Orleans sits on the "eastern side of the storm, we take the brunt of it," Nagin said.

New Orleans' levees, overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina, "are still in very weak condition," and many of the pumps used to push the mucky floodwaters back into Lake Pontchartrain are not operating, Nagin said. If Rita were to dump 9 inches of rain on New Orleans, the result would be "3 to 4 feet of flooding in most parts of the city," he said.

The mayor's reversal, however, came only hours after President Bush questioned whether the city was safe enough for people to return. In a series of media interviews over the weekend, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen also had expressed concerns with Nagin's re-entry plans because the city doesn't have safe drinking water or a functioning 911 system.

Bush administration officials and Nagin have sparred publicly and in private in recent days over the mayor's plan to permit up to 182,000 people to return to New Orleans over the course of 10 days, beginning with Algiers, followed by the Garden District this week, then the historic French Quarter.

Nagin, interviewed over the weekend in Dallas by Fox News, questioned Allen's credentials: "Since I have been away a day or two maybe he's the new crowned federal mayor of New Orleans."

That prompted Bush to reinforce Allen's message, telling reporters he was taking the unusual step of commenting publicly to be certain the mayor got the message.

"We have made our position loud and clear," the president said yesterday.

A number of state officials also urged caution yesterday.

Bill Doran, chief of operations for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said levees damaged by Katrina could fail if faced with any type of tropical storm or unusual high tide. Some of the major evacuation routes used as Katrina approached are now unusable, Doran noted.

Nagin had defended his plan earlier in the day.

"The admiral is a good man. I respect him. But when he starts talking for the citizens of New Orleans, he's kind of out of his range," Nagin said. "There is only one mayor of New Orleans, and I'm it."

Nagin said Rita was not providing him an excuse to follow the advice of federal officials, and pledged to resume his plan as soon as the storm's danger has passed.

The evacuation order extends to the city's east bank, while citizens across the Mississippi River on the west bank, which includes Algiers, would be encouraged to leave, Nagin said. Buses would be provided, the mayor's office announced.

"I'm asking everyone to start the process of evacuating right now," Nagin said. "We're going to step that up every day. What I'm concerned right now is how many people have access to televisions and radios. Every day we're going to be talking about evacuating as long as the storm is a threat."

Although Nagin said he would turn to active-duty soldiers and the National Guard to help the city's depleted police department enforce the new evacuation order, a Pentagon official said that is not the role of the military.

"They have not asked us to help them take anyone out of the city at this time," said Brig. Gen. Mark Graham, deputy commanding general of the 5th U.S. Army, which oversees the 82nd Airborne Division and other active-duty Army forces in the region. "We don't forcibly evacuate anyone. That's a law-enforcement job."

Reaction to the order was mixed.

"I'm not happy about the new mandatory evacuation," said Glenn Domingue, a general manager of United Cab, based near the Garden District. "It's just one of those things. Nagin is trying his best. But when you get hurricanes back to back there is only so much you can do."

Others tried to use humor to calm real fear that another storm could upend the community again.

"Anybody hear the latest coordinates on Rita?" said Jill Marshall, asking no one in particular as she buzzed around her coffee shop in Algiers. "Sweetie, I may have to cancel my food order. We may have to evacuate."

Even as some residents began to slowly move back into their houses yesterday afternoon and business owners such as Marshall tried to reopen their stores, some locals said Nagin had jumped the gun in allowing residents to return.

"Frankly, it would be child abuse to bring your children or family back here," said Kevin Herridge, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in Algiers. "The city isn't ready."

Compiled from The Washington Post, Knight Ridder Newspapers and

the Chicago Tribune

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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