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For New Orleans, 2 Storms Brewing

Times Staff Writers

With almost 90% of Hurricane Katrina’s floodwater gone from New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin and the U.S. Coast Guard admiral overseeing the federal relief effort disagreed Sunday on how quickly the city can be brought back to life, and will meet today in an effort to narrow their differences.

But even as the mayor defended his plan to allow residents to return ZIP Code by ZIP Code, the federal government’s chief argument for slowing down -- the possibility of another storm -- was bolstered Sunday.

State and U.S. hurricane experts were closely watching Tropical Storm Rita, which was situated south of the Bahamas. Though a storm’s path is difficult to predict precisely, officials said, computer models suggest that the storm could pass between the Florida Keys, which are under a hurricane watch, and Cuba.

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By Tuesday afternoon, it could be over the Gulf of Mexico, feeding on warm water and training its eye anywhere from central Mexico to the U.S. Gulf Coast, according to the National Hurricane Center.

A Louisiana official called the storm “nebulous” Sunday. But Ivor L. van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and a leading weather modeler, said that even a peripheral brush with a major storm could flood the city again.

“We’re working on it feverishly right now,” he said. “Our concern is that the levees in New Orleans are in a severely degraded state. Right now, New Orleans is extremely vulnerable.”

The possibility of another storm was only one factor cited Sunday by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, head of the federal government relief effort, who said he would encourage Nagin to rethink his program for bringing residents back.

Allen cautioned that the east bank -- the bulk of the city -- had no potable water. Widespread problems remain with the 911 system, telephone lines and power, he added, and polluted floodwater also poses a threat to returning residents.

“Our collective counsel is for him to slow down and take this at a more moderate pace,” Allen said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“The levees have been weakened to the point where if you’re going to bring a significant amount of people into New Orleans, you need to have an evacuation plan on how you’re going to do that.”

Still, there were indications that New Orleans would soon be ready to be a city again.

The causeway across Lake Pontchartrain, a crucial thoroughfare connecting New Orleans to its northern suburbs, is expected to open this morning, Louisiana State Police Sgt. Cathy Flinchum said.

And a top Army Corps of Engineers official said that about 87% of the floodwater that entered New Orleans had been pumped out.

Immediately after Katrina, officials said it might take as long as six months to pump out the city. The corps then lowered that estimate to 80 days. If the current plan holds, the job will have been completed in 26 days.

In Orleans Parish, which includes the city of New Orleans, just 2,700 acres remain flooded, and part of that is an industrial pocket that has been kept wet deliberately for safety reasons. Immediately after the storm, 27,000 acres were flooded in the city.

Only three pools of water remain in the city, varying in depth from 2 to 4 feet. They will be pumped out in the next five days, according to Col. Duane Gapinski, the corps officer in charge of draining the city.

Late last week, Nagin proposed bringing back more than 180,000 residents -- about a third of the city’s pre-Katrina population -- by the end of the month.

Business owners began returning to the city Saturday. Algiers, on the city’s West Bank, across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter and the business district, is expected to open to some residents today. Algiers would be followed by the city’s Uptown area, including the Garden District, and the French Quarter at the beginning of next week.

The areas targeted for repopulation include those that best weathered Katrina and have not been affected by the standing water that has devastated other areas.

Nagin said his “sensible” plan was developed in cooperation with the federal government.

At a checkpoint in the Uptown area Sunday afternoon, a member of the Louisiana National Guard passed out leaflets warning about a citywide curfew from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. and recommending that those returning bring gloves, masks and other protective gear to guard against contaminated water and soil. Item No. 1 on the list: “You are entering at your own risk.”

“We believe our reentry plan properly balances safety concerns and the needs of our citizens to begin rebuilding their lives,” Nagin said in a statement.

Residents interviewed Sunday generally supported the mayor’s position -- especially business owners, who equate the return of the populace with the resuscitation of the city’s commerce.

Martin Lill, 45, who owns seven rental units in the city, said he thought that the mayor’s plan could use some fine-tuning. For example, he said, the city could coordinate its reentry plan with utility companies to ensure that neighborhoods where residents are returning have power.

Other than that, “I think the mayor’s plan is perfectly sound,” he said.

“Let us come back,” he said.

At the corner of Magazine Street and State Avenue, 31-year-old Gary Hardin was covered in sweat and grime Sunday as he tried to clean out his family restaurant, the Wow Cafe, so that he could reopen. Among his tasks: cleaning out 400 pounds of chicken wings and 180 pounds of tenders and breasts that were left in an idle refrigerator when he and his family fled the storm.

Hardin said New Orleans faced a “major environmental problem” that could prove deadly in some areas. But he said the areas targeted for reentry were safe.

“Nagin is a businessman,” Hardin said. “He understands how to rebuild, unlike a normal politician.”

John Yike, 43, drove with his brother from Atlanta to spend the weekend inspecting his Bywater home and his French Quarter art shop, both of which were in surprisingly good shape. Yike said he understood that he was returning to the city at his own risk.

“They’re doing good about allowing the idiots who want to come back, come back,” he said. “They’ve done a real good job in a real bad situation.”

Also Sunday, officials said Katrina’s death toll had risen to 883 -- 646 in Louisiana, 219 in Mississippi, 14 in Florida, two in Alabama and two in Georgia.

In Baton Rouge, Mark Smith, spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the state was struggling to establish housing for roughly 1 million New Orleans-area residents scattered nationwide.

“We’re talking about an astronomical number of people that are without homes,” he said.

Officials are considering trailers, military facilities, hotels, motels, rental and vacant properties, and even college dormitories for the 60,000 to 70,000 families still in shelters. Smith described efforts to provide shelter as a “Herculean task.”

In Washington, members of Congress geared up for a fight over which federal programs to cut in pay for rebuilding without increasing the budget deficit.

And lawmakers from both parties are stepping up efforts to persuade the White House to name a strong manager to oversee the spending.

A leader of House conservatives said he and his colleagues planned to unveil proposed cuts this week.

While House conservatives are “committed to doing everything necessary” for the hurricane victims, “we simply can’t allow a catastrophe of nature to become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren,” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Among the ways reconstruction costs might be offset: delaying implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit and cutting billions of dollars of lawmakers’ pet projects from the recently approved highway bill. An across-the-board cut in all programs except defense has also been suggested.

Democrats say the federal cost of rebuilding -- possibly more than $200 billion -- should cause Republicans to drop plans for $70 billion in tax cuts.

“You can’t fight a war in Iraq that’s costing upwards of $200 billion and rebuild New Orleans ... and try to deal with all of the other domestic needs that we have and then cut taxes for the wealthiest 1% of Americans,” Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Republicans countered that failing to enact the tax cuts could hamper efforts to improve the economy.

In Houston, where four main shelters once housed more than 27,000 evacuees, the shelter population declined by several hundred to 1,449 at the Reliant Arena and 362 at the downtown George R. Brown Convention Center.

An estimated 2,000 evacuees have accepted an offer of free one-way tickets out of Houston by Continental Airlines.

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Gold and Vartabedian reported from New Orleans, Rosenblatt from Baton Rouge. Times staff writers Richard Simon in Washington, Nicholas Riccardi and Ann M. Simmons in New Orleans, and Tony Perry in Houston contributed to this report.


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