Facing pressure from Washington and another storm system on the way, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin halted his campaign to repopulate his city Monday and ordered the few residents and business owners who had returned to leave again.
Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, flooding New Orleans, Tropical Storm Rita was expected to bear down today on the Florida Keys -- where all 80,000 residents had been told to evacuate. Rita then is likely to move over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where officials said it could strengthen into a Category 3 hurricane.
Rita could make landfall on the Gulf Coast as early as Thursday, although Friday or Saturday is more likely.
According to government forecasts Monday night, the storm could land anywhere from northern Mexico to Mississippi. But Nagin said his advisors had determined that Rita probably would pass to the west of New Orleans or strike near the island community of Galveston, Texas -- where authorities were planning evacuations starting today.
If Rita makes landfall anywhere near New Orleans and its damaged levee system, it could send water cascading again into a city just starting to dry out after Katrina.
Nagin said that a 3-foot storm surge, which can be kicked up by even a moderate tropical storm, would leave as much as 4 feet of water in New Orleans. Rita was expected to rake the Keys with a storm surge of up to 9 feet. Louisiana emergency officials said that even if Rita’s eye hit Texas, it could still send a 3-foot surge to New Orleans.
“I’d rather err on the side of conservatism,” Nagin said when ordering residents back out of the city. “Today, there is a significant threat of this thing turning north.... Any type of storm that heads this way and hits us will put Orleans Parish in a very vulnerable position.”
Nagin said he considered the threat from Rita equal to that posed by Katrina, but he called it “a different event” because a significant number of people no longer lived in the city.
As Katrina approached New Orleans, authorities issued a mandatory evacuation. And with the city underwater after the storm, they threatened to use force to remove stragglers from their homes. But many refused to leave, and city officials backed down. Residents since have trickled back to parts of the city despite roadblocks, a collapsed infrastructure and the threat of toxic sludge.
Last weekend, Nagin allowed some business owners to return. On Monday, he opened the Algiers section -- across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter -- to residents, and thousands of cars streamed back into the city. Then the mayor announced that everyone needed to be out again by Wednesday.
“I am hopeful that people have seen the threat of Katrina and that they understand the threat,” he said.
Asked whether he expected that some people would refuse to leave, Nagin said: “We’re all adults.
“All I can do is tell you exactly what I’m seeing,” he said. “If anybody wants to sit this out ... God bless them.”
Meanwhile, energy prices surged in New York futures trading Monday over worries that Rita would deliver another blow to the Gulf Coast, the nation’s key oil and natural gas production region.
Oil futures jumped $4.39 to close at $67.39 a barrel. Natural gas surged to a record $12.663 per million British thermal units, up $1.519.
As oil companies began evacuating workers Monday from production platforms and drilling rigs in the gulf, experts predicted the recent decline in retail gasoline prices could come to a halt.
In New Orleans in recent days, Nagin clashed with federal officials over his proposal to bring 180,000 residents back into the city by the end of the month.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, head of the federal government’s relief effort, had encouraged Nagin to slow down -- citing lingering environmental threats and the dearth of potable water, the lack of a 911 system and inoperable sewer pipes, among other problems.
While calling Allen “a good man,” Nagin said that he was attempting to repopulate only the safest portions of the city; he reminded Allen on Monday that “there is only one mayor of New Orleans.”
President Bush jumped into the debate earlier Monday, citing a “deep concern” about Rita. Bush said he disagreed with Nagin’s efforts to allow residents to return to parts of New Orleans this soon.
“The mayor has got this dream about having a city up and running. And we share that dream,” Bush said. “But we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles that we all confront in repopulating New Orleans.”
White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. spoke with Nagin by telephone Monday before the mayor announced he was halting the effort to bring residents back.
Ahead of Rita, Louisiana officials were putting together evacuation plans and conferring with leaders of parishes that could be battered by the storm. Evacuation routes must be redrawn because many roads remain washed out -- including the massive causeway that runs across Lake Pontchartrain to the north of New Orleans.
Only 2,000 beds in shelters are available in Louisiana, said Lt. Col. William J. Doran III, operations division chief for the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Officials also are concerned about how and where they will move the 16,000 troops and myriad emergency workers who arrived in New Orleans after Katrina. There also are Federal Emergency Management Agency teams elsewhere in the state, as well as in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas that might have to be moved.
“Obviously we’re taking the storm very seriously,” said David Passey, a FEMA spokesman. “We’re going to know in a couple days where the next target is.”
Passey stressed, however, that evacuation was a local and state responsibility.
On Monday night, authorities were staging buses outside New Orleans that could be used to ferry residents to safety. Nagin said that he planned to amass 200 buses and that evacuations would begin 48 hours before projected landfall of the storm. Residents would be loaded onto buses at the New Orleans Convention Center along the Mississippi River and at Behrman Stadium in Algiers. Another 350 buses also are ready west of New Orleans to begin evacuations at shelters housing thousands of people who fled Katrina.
In Houston, officials announced Monday night that all remaining evacuees from Katrina still housed at the Reliant Arena and at another shelter would be flown today to Ft. Chaffee, Ark., because of the threat from the next storm.
In Algiers, where residents officially were allowed to return Monday, people were distressed about the possibility of another storm.
Celeste Ruffin had just driven in from Fort Worth with two friends when Nagin issued his latest evacuation order.
Her home suffered serious wind and rain damage from Katrina, and Ruffin spent Monday searching the government distribution centers in her area for a tarp to cover the roof.
She wasn’t able to find one.
But as soon as she does, Ruffin said, she plans to head for Houston in her Oldsmobile, the trunk still full of the groceries she brought with her.
Nagin “should have never told us we could come back,” Ruffin said.
Merlin May, a cook at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, returned home to Algiers to find his home in fairly good condition. May had spent two weeks in Baton Rouge, La., with friends. He was thrilled that he had been allowed to return to New Orleans -- and incensed that he might have to turn around and leave again.
“It is a bad idea,” he said. “We have water, electricity, and the stores are beginning to open.”
Carlos Smith never left in the first place: He rode out Katrina on the floor of his apartment with his dog, Lady. He was incredulous when told that Nagin had ordered another evacuation and said he would refuse to go.
“I have been here too long to leave,” he said. “It ain’t luck if I made it this far.”
Gold and Vartabedian reported from New Orleans and Rosenblatt from Baton Rouge. Times staff writers Elizabeth Douglass in Los Angeles, John-Thor Dahlburg in Miami and Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.