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New Orleans a ghost town once again, as workers race to fix levees

NEW ORLEANS—The lights are on, but there are fewer and fewer people home in the French Quarter.

The new business of this town—cleanup and reconstruction—was slowed and stopped in some places Wednesday in preparation for Hurricane Rita. Workers raced to repair the remaining breaches in the levee system in case the storm turns toward Louisiana.

But most of the city was eerily quiet, after Rita's threat forced Mayor Ray Nagin to close New Orleans to residents and business owners who only days ago had been told they could have returned Wednesday.

Empty buses lined the street in front of the convention center to remove those who'd stayed behind, but only about 50 had left since Tuesday. Many of those who remain are emergency workers and contractors.

"It is getting spooky around here again," said Lucrecia Smithson, a resident of the French Quarter who's held out in her apartment since Katrina hit. "For a while, there were a lot of people around again, but now lots of folks seem to have vanished."

As the state's death toll from Katrina climbed to almost 800, workers struggled to patch the levee system whose failure led to many of those deaths.

Lee Carr and his makeshift crew have been putting in 18-hour days over the last week. By Wednesday afternoon, they had just four hours left to finish, by order of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

On the London Canal bridge, three pumps had been working since the corps built a road into this place, which sat under 5 feet of water after Lake Pontchartrain's surge smashed a 330-foot section of the concrete floodwall here and in another spot farther south.

But now—with the threat from Rita—the pumps must be removed, so that the walls can be made fast.

There was a loud pop as the welding torches ignited. It took two minutes to cut through the steel brackets holding the last pump in place. Superheated filaments made the canal glow red when they dropped in.

"That's a good burn—that's what I'm talkin' about!" shouted Ricky Oubre, down from Baton Rouge.

From the crane cab, Anthony Barient pulled the lifting cables taut. The pump rose dripping from the water.

Oubre grabbed the tag line and, over the crane engine's grind, the men negotiated a feat of delicate manipulation and strength.

"Grab that line!"

"Watch it, watch it now."

"She's talkin' to ya."

"She sweet talkin' or rough talkin'?"

When they were done, there was a cheer but no rest, because the men had just four hours to drive the pilings down and weld them fast. Not half a mile south, where the floodwall broke, water was still trickling out of the canal and into the neighborhoods it was built to protect.

As the crews raced the clock, state officials were preparing for the possibility of heavy rain in the southwest part of the state.

The state Department of Social Services has begun evacuating 236 people from special-needs centers in several cities near the coast. Arrangements were being made for evacuating 9,100 people in shelters in areas with the greatest risk of flooding. Currently, 14,000 beds are available for evacuees north of Interstate 10 if necessary, said Terri Ricks, the state undersecretary of the Department of Social Services.

Marketa Garner Gautreau, with the state Department of Community Services, said arrangements are being made to prevent children from being separated from their families if evacuations for Rita are necessary. Officials will be stationed at bus loading centers to make sure that families aren't split up, a major problem during the flight from Katrina.

The Louisiana National Guard is mobilizing 1,300 personnel in Carville for deployment to areas of the state struck by Rita, if necessary. These will be soldiers and airmen from engineering, infantry and medical units.

In Baton Rouge, Nagin met with his city's state representatives and city council members and was sent a clear message—as soon as the storm threat passes, let people back in.

The theme from many of those at the meeting embodied a contradiction that goes to the heart of the repopulation plan: Residents want conditions to be safe when they return, but they don't want to wait.

Some speakers told Nagin that they were concerned that the longer the city was closed, the more likely it would be that professionals and others would find jobs elsewhere.

Nagin said there are limits to what the city can initially handle, saying a population of about 250,000—about half the size of New Orleans, pre-Katrina—may be the maximum for the first 12 to 24 months.

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(Nesmith and Spangler of The Miami Herald reported from New Orleans; Corcoran of the San Jose Mercury News from Baton Rouge. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents David Sneed of the San Luis Obispo (Calif.) Tribune contributed from Baton Rouge, and Gary Estwick of the Akron Beacon Journal contributed from New Orleans.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-NEWORLEANS, levee

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