NEW ORLEANS—Facing the threat of another powerful storm and besieged by questions from President Bush and others, Mayor Ray Nagin on Monday halted the reopening of large sections of the city.
And anyone who is holding out on the city's east bank—the main part of the city—should evacuate, he said.
"I am urging and encouraging everyone who knows of someone who may be at their homes somewhere in Orleans Parish ... to call them and encourage them to leave the city," Nagin said.
Within about an hour of his announcement, security tightened in several parts of the city.
Flooding from Tropical Storm Rita, which is expected to develop into a hurricane, is possible because the city's levees are weak and its pumping stations are not operating at capacity, Nagin said.
He warned that residents he had invited back Monday to neighborhoods in the Algiers section of the city, across the Mississippi River from the city's east bank, might have to turn around and leave Wednesday.
Although most forecasts project Rita will hit Texas as a major hurricane, Nagin said some scenarios show it crashing into the Louisiana coast.
The Army Corps of Engineers said Monday that if Rita veers toward New Orleans, heavy rainfall could flood the northern and some central parts of the city with two to four feet of water.
The developments came on a day when the death toll from Hurricane Katrina rose to 973, with 90 more bodies reported in Louisiana.
Nagin made his decision after a weekend of questions about the city's readiness, raised first by the federal commander of relief efforts in New Orleans, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, and underscored on Monday by Bush.
"There is deep concern about this storm causing more flooding in New Orleans," Bush said.
Earlier in the day, Nagin had defended his plan to repopulate the city.
"The admiral is a good man. I respect him. But when he starts talking for the citizens of New Orleans, he's kind of out of his range," Nagin said. "There is only one mayor of New Orleans, and I'm it."
Nagin said the hurricane was not providing him an excuse to follow the advice of federal officials, and pledged to resume his plan as soon as Rita's danger has passed.
Forced evacuations on the east bank are being considered. Residents are not supposed to be living in that area now, but have not been forcibly removed. The city cannot estimate the number of people there now, but at least several hundred are living there.
Nagin's repopulation plan had barely begun, and the return of residents to Algiers on Monday was more a trickle than a stampede.
The mayor last week announced plans to reopen the city's Garden District later this week, followed by the historic French Quarter, but backed off a specific timetable when federal officials cautioned that he was moving too quickly.
Earlier Monday, a number of state officials also urged caution.
Bill Doran, chief of operations for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said levees damaged by Hurricane Katrina could fail if faced with any type of tropical storm or unusual high tide. Some of the major evacuation routes used as Hurricane Katrina approached are now unusable, Doran said.
"We want to do it," he said of Nagin's repopulation plan, "but not in a hasty method that would put those people in harm's way."
Should Rita threaten the area, there would be far fewer people to evacuate because so many are still outside New Orleans. But there are more than 16,000 National Guard troops and other rescue workers in the area, said Mark Smith, a spokesman for the state homeland security office. They would have to be evacuated, and the state is already making plans to do so if Rita approaches.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco urged residents in southwestern Louisiana to begin making preparations to leave if necessary. She said FEMA has buses to help those who can't evacuate on their own, and a task force is arranging shelters.
"We are in a very dangerous place," she said. "Because we do not know where this hurricane will end up, we are taking Rita very, very seriously."
A few people trickled back on Monday to Algiers, which escaped the city's most serious damage. Some people never left, and others had managed to get in shortly after Katrina passed.
Over the past week, they have been sustaining the rest of the city.
"We're like ground zero for the National Guard and Immigration dirty clothes," said Jim Ritchie, owner of the Spin Stop.
Algiers is where rescue workers, soldiers and journalists can get fresh laundry, gas, cigarettes, even a cold Coke or beer.
At a Red Cross assistance center set up at a high school, volunteers were having trouble giving away hot meals. There just wasn't much need in Algiers.
"I would welcome anybody. We've got a ton of food and I don't want it to go bad," said volunteer Charles Way of New Jersey. The center was the first to open anywhere in the city of New Orleans.
Pamela Gregory was glad to get the help. She had stayed through the storm, but found that neighboring Jefferson Parish wouldn't let her in to buy supplies.
"I'm so hungry," she said, laughing. "I've lost weight since this thing happened. A co-worker brought us in some supplies. She lives in Jefferson Parish so they'll let her in. But we've been getting pretty low around here."
The mayor's hope that the city would start returning Monday, beginning with Algiers, seemed dashed on this neighborhood's deserted streets.
Timothy Allen came Monday to gather his belongings, but he was headed back to Texas.
"Even though the house is OK, I'm a physician at Baptist Hospital and it's closed," he explained, a bit melancholy to be leaving a neighborhood his three little children loved. "This is a great neighborhood. We walk to the park, and I take the ferry over to the aquarium with my daughter. But because of the situation in the rest of the city, we can't come back for now."
(Nesmith and Estwick reported from New Orleans, Frazier from Baton Rouge; Knight Ridder correspondents Katherine Corcoran and Pete Carey contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050915 KATRINA return
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