Even as they prepared to welcome businesspeople back to their stricken city, New Orleans officials Friday said the flood-protection system that failed during Hurricane Katrina now is so weak that three inches of rainfall would trigger another deluge.
Damaged pumps would be unable to channel rainwater out of the city, which lies below sea level. “It would re-water, so to speak, so many areas that we have already emptied and are dry,” said Terry J. Ebbert, a former Marine colonel who is head of emergency operations for New Orleans.
Businesses owners are scheduled to start returning to some of those dry areas today; residents will be allowed back into the western edge of the city Monday and possibly into other dry neighborhoods later in the week.
The city hopes to reopen the storied French Quarter Sept. 26, but officials continued to stress that the repopulation of New Orleans would be a delicate task -- and easily could be delayed or disrupted. The city is frantically trying to strengthen its levees and revive its pumping system, and much of New Orleans still lacks power and clean water.
As if on cue, it began to rain Friday evening, although the total was forecast to fall short of a level that would cause more flooding.
Downtown business owners will be required to enter New Orleans through two checkpoints; they have been urged to retrieve only vital records and leave before the 6 p.m. curfew. Police will hand out a two-page sheet of instructions to returning residents, who will be required to show identification demonstrating they have a right to be in the selected ZIP codes that are reopening.
Ebbert said that the city would proceed with its plan only if things go smoothly.
“We know it’s very important to return our citizens to this city,” Ebbert said. “But we know we have a responsibility as the city government to care for them.”
In yet another reminder of the hazards facing New Orleans, environmental officials Friday strongly warned people to avoid all contact with the mud and muck left behind by receding floodwaters because it contains unsafe levels of petroleum products and bacteria.
“We’re very nervous about an overwhelming influx of people coming in and the potential health threats that represents,” said Mike McDaniel, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Results of environmental testing released Friday showed high levels of oil, diesel fuel and E. coli -- largely from flooded vehicles, fuel tanks and human waste -- in the mud, but a surprisingly low level of hazardous chemicals or metals. Multiple oil spills caused by Katrina have exacerbated the petroleum contamination by depositing an estimated 160,000 barrels of oil beneath the mouth of the Mississippi River. Authorities said they are making progress on about six of the 35 to 40 spills.
“We still have a lot of oil in the water,” said Roland Guidry, a state oil spill coordinator who called the initial cleaning process a logistical nightmare. He said a maritime administration ship slated to house up to 500 workers was due to dock today.
Officials warned that when the mud now covering much of the city dries, it could emit dust that is especially hazardous to people with respiratory and heart problems.
“The danger is actually worse when the water goes away, because you have hazardous materials more concentrated in muck and dust,” said Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of solid waste and emergency response. “People will ... try to clean their homes or porches, and they’ll have toxic dust they’ll be sweeping around. And they’ll inhale it and ingest it.”
Despite such warnings, there were signs of revitalized life in New Orleans’ debris-strewn downtown as workers prepared for a low-key reopening. The W Hotel jumped the gun, reopening Friday. It is booked with insurance adjusters, relief crews and emergency maintenance workers. The bar didn’t have customers, but all 50 candles were lit.
“It feels unbelievably wonderful to be working again,” said Jennifer Childress, one of the bartenders. Her home in the Lakeview neighborhood had flooded. She didn’t have insurance. “Nothing I can do about it. Better to work and make money and try to rebuild then sit around and cry and blame someone. Especially since there’s no one to blame.”
Ray Menard and M.C. Brown sat in front of their apartment building on the edge of the central business district, musing on the day and drinking from a large bottle of Bolla Valpolicella. The wine was a gift from some Germans who were departing the city. “We depend on the kindness of strangers,” said Menard.
The two men, in their late 70s, were the only ones who hadn’t evacuated from their building. “All the rats left the sinking ship,” said Menard. “When they find it didn’t sink, they’ll come back.”
That process will start Monday.
“We’ll have to hide the beer,” Brown said.
Powers reported from Baton Rouge, Streitfeld from New Orleans and Cone from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Nicholas Riccardi in New Orleans and Lianne Hart in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.