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Friday, September 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rain returns to New Orleans as city braces for new storm

NEW ORLEANS — A steady rain from the fringes of Hurricane Rita fell yesterday on New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and engineers rushed to shore up the broken levees for fear of another ruinous round of flooding.

The forecast called for 3 to 5 inches of rain in New Orleans in coming days. That is dangerously close to the amount engineers said could send floodwaters pouring back into neighborhoods that have been dry for less than a week.

The storm took a sharper-than-expected turn to the right yesterday, setting it on a course that could spare Houston and nearby Galveston a direct hit. But that raised the risk that the hurricane could strike much closer to New Orleans.

The few residents left here hunkered down yesterday as Mayor Ray Nagin said he hoped the new storm's westward track would prevent another catastrophe for this battered city.

"Maybe we'll be spared this time," the mayor told reporters as the first squalls lashed the downtown business district.

The biggest worry is the damaged levee system. The 129 miles of earthen defenses cannot withstand storm surges above 3 to 5 feet, heavy rains or tropical-force winds.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has driven massive sheet-metal pilings to shore up areas along the 17th Street Canal and London Street Canal that were recently repaired.

But Nagin said that stopgap measure has blocked three pumping stations crucial to moving rainfall from the below-sea-level city into Lake Pontchartrain. Pumps in the central business district also are running at just 35 to 40 percent of normal capacity, he said.

The entire Mississippi delta region was under a tropical storm warning. To the west of New Orleans, the storm was expected to bring 15 to 20 inches of rain to southwestern Louisiana.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco bluntly told those who refuse to leave New Orleans and the southwest part of the state that they should "write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink" so their bodies could be identified once the storm passes.

Evacuees were told not to head to Texas or Baton Rouge, La. The storm is bound for landfall near the Texas-Louisiana state line, and all hotel rooms and evacuation centers in Baton Rouge are full.

More than 3,000 National Guard soldiers in the New Orleans area were moved to the Lake Charles area to do storm cleanup, provide medical assistance and security and supply food and water.

Blanco asked for 30,000 more troops — 15,000 guardsmen and 15,000 active military — to handle Hurricane Rita damages, but as of last night she had not gotten an answer.

Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of the active troops assigned to hurricane duty in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, said he had submitted the governor's request to the Department of Defense and was awaiting a reply.

Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, in charge of Federal Emergency Management Agency operations, said FEMA has three days' supply of food and water for 500,000 people and plenty of supplies staged to move in, if needed. David Paulison, the acting FEMA director, said in Washington that while some relief workers and supplies were moved to Texas from Florida after Rita had passed by, none was moved out of Louisiana.

"We have resources on the ground there," Paulison said. "We're going to keep them, and we're moving new stuff into Texas to make sure they're covered."

As skies shifted from sunny to ominous, some work crews were still out repairing power lines and buildings and moving debris from the streets of New Orleans. There also were a few residents out, despite the mandatory evacuation order for the entire east bank area of the city and a voluntary evacuation for the west bank area.

Ten empty tour buses were lined up near the convention center to move anyone who wanted to leave the city, but military officials said they'd had few takers by mid-afternoon yesterday.

On Decatur Street, Pat Boswell and her son Scott, a chef, manned the downscale sister cafe of his upscale Quarter restaurant, Stella, yesterday for the first time since Katrina hit. She shrugged off any thought of leaving the city again.

"I love this city, and it's all I have," said Boswell, whose "Stanley" cafe offered $5 cheeseburgers. "We moved around the last time, left and sat there and watched TV. This time, I said, 'You know what? I'm not leaving.' "

Compiled from The Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and Gannett News Service

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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