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Sunday, September 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Orleans mends again

The Dallas Morning News

NEW ORLEANS — The city is drying out, again. And after days of paranoia about a second hurricane, the mayor said yesterday that some residents and business owners may be allowed to return soon.

Hurricane Rita left as much as one-third of New Orleans swamped anew by rain and a lake surge that overwhelmed storm drains and patched levees. It could have been worse.

"Katrina was the wash cycle. Rita seems like the rinse cycle. Now I hope we can hang on the line for a while to dry," Mayor Ray Nagin said.

Engineers worked yesterday to stop a slackened flow of water still streaming across the Industrial Canal levees into the evacuated 9th Ward, which had water up to some roof lines.

But Nagin said business owners throughout the city and residents of the West Bank neighborhood of Algiers may be allowed back as early as tomorrow, if no new problems arise with the levees.

"We want to monitor our levees over the next few days," he said. "And the 9th Ward, that's a pretty big setback. They're under water for the second time now. As for the rest of the city, I'm still feeling pretty good."

Retailers including, Lowe's and Home Depot, are prepared to set up temporary stores to serve returning business owners and residents repairing their property, Nagin said. However, because of the continued risk from hurricanes and weakened levees, he said he would encourage elderly people and families with children not to return to the city immediately.

Nagin said the new storm set back his timetable to repopulate the city by one week. The city is still gripped by checkpoints and a curfew, but police said they had no arrests in the past two days.

As for those who never left, "God bless 'em," Nagin said. "It's the spirit of the city. A free spirit, a defiant spirit, a spirit that loves this city and will not abandon it."

The Army Corps of Engineers trucked in rocks yesterday to shore up the west side of the battered Industrial Canal levee. After the winds subsided, helicopters also began dropping 7,000-pound sandbags onto the eastern side of the canal.

In the next few days, military engineers hope to raise the levee patches to at least 10 feet, but it could take two to three weeks to move the water out of the 9th Ward, where Katrina ruined virtually all homes, said Col. Richard Wagenaar, commander of the corps' New Orleans district.

"All this hard work, and the people who live in those homes, it's discouraging," he said. "We've got to dry this area out."

Engineers also discovered water overflowing a canal into a previously dry but sparsely populated area of Plaquemines Parish.

Clarence Rodriguez, a repairman, rode out both storms at his home west of the Industrial Canal. He slept on his kitchen counter to avoid the water in his house.

Rodriguez said the flooding might benefit his more impoverished neighbors across the canal.

"This is not the Ritz or anything. But over there, a lot of the houses were dilapidated anyway," he said. "This is possibly the best thing for them. Knock it all down and start over."

He stayed because he thought the city would dry out soon. His street was wet for 14 days, he said. "I had no idea that the water would stick around."

Joe Peters, who kept his St. Claude Used Tire repair shop open in the 9th Ward, said the sooner city officials let people back in, the better. "We need the people back. They are going to clean up their own houses," he said.

But some residents who returned to the area for the first time were skeptical of the mayor's timetable.

Susan Sicard on Friday night saw her Metairie home for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. "It's really heartbreaking," she said. "There's piles of trash for miles. Mold on everything."

She took a stroll yesterday with her husband, three young children and mother and tried to check on her sister's home in Lakeview. But floodwaters 2 feet deep had cut off access to that neighborhood and Gentilly.

"I don't think we're ready for repopulation," Sicard said. "We don't have gas stations open to handle the people, or restaurants and stores. It will be another crisis, a crisis of need."

Some of Nagin's comments were reported by The New York Times

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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