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Rita sets back New Orleans' efforts to recover from Katrina

NEW ORLEANS—As the threat of widespread flooding subsided on Saturday, relief mixed with new frustrations as some neighborhoods left relatively unscathed by Hurricane Katrina couldn't escape Rita.

Much of the levee system that had failed during Katrina—and again Friday as Rita approached—appeared to hold fast. But Rita flooded enough of the city and surrounding parishes that some key components of recovery, including providing water clean enough to drink, suffered setbacks.

And in some neighborhoods that were beginning to recover from Katrina, rushing floodwaters erased all signs of hard-fought progress.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Mitch Frazier said flooding had ceased along the downtown, or west side, of the Industrial Canal that was overtopped Friday by surging Lake Pontchartrain.

The flooding left the city's Lower Ninth Ward and some adjoining areas under water for the second time in a month. That water was slowly receding on Saturday, as the Army Corps of Engineers began a new round of emergency levee repair.

Workers packed 2,000 sandbags—weighing as much as 7,000 pounds apiece—that were airlifted into place to bolster the height of weakened sections of levees. Large rocks were trucked in to repair the Industrial Canal.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said rainwater that flooded some neighborhoods couldn't be pumped out immediately because of the steps taken to block two canals where Katrina breached levees.

Even after Rita passed, city officials were closely monitoring the levee system. After Katrina, it initially appeared that the levees had held, but several failed in the hours after the storm. Nagin said Saturday afternoon that the levees are "not as strong as we would like them to be, but they seem to be holding up."

In some outlying parishes, levees were breached on Saturday, leading to a new round of flooding.

Rita's storm surge sent water pouring into parts of two cities south of New Orleans—neither of which had been seriously flooded by Katrina. Residents who'd evacuated for Katrina and returned to dry homes stayed this time—and had to be rescued.

"Thank God for those airboats, I tell you," said Charles Calzada as he loaded his two dogs into a nephew's car on Saturday. The family wasn't allowed to stay with their dogs in a Red Cross shelter that was hastily set up in a Westwego junior high school for Barataria and Lafitte residents, so they headed elsewhere.

The floodwaters "started coming up yesterday morning, but it was really slow," Pamela Calzada said. "We thought we were fine, but by 3 this morning, my cedar chest was floating."

There were more problems in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans.

It had taken almost a month to pump out parts of the parish, which is bisected by the mouth of the Mississippi River. Power was slowly being restored; people were coming back and talking about rebuilding.

But Rita erased much of that progress. Part of Myrtle Grove and communities from Port Sulphur to Buras were under water that was inching higher by the hour on Saturday.

Parts of the East Bank, bordered by miles of marshland on one side and the Mississippi on the other, flooded as well after a hastily reconstructed levee broke.

"All of our roads are gone," said Jason Bazile, one of the few people still living on the East Bank, parts of which now are navigable only by boat. "I stayed up last night and the water was just coming, coming, coming."

Levee breaches had been filled with crushed granite, mud and coal taken from a shipping depot on the Mississippi. After those supplies were gone, sand was used, and now that is mostly gone, too.

"All of our reserve supplies are gone," Sheriff Jiff Hingle said. "We're going to be starting from square one, Monday morning."

As the Rita cleanup began in New Orleans, Nagin wasted no time in renewing his call to repopulate his city. He said that residents would be allowed back into the relatively untouched Algiers area on Monday or Tuesday if all goes well.

Nagin found an apt metaphor for the double whammy his city has taken.

"Katrina was the wash cycle. Rita seems to be the rinse cycle. I'm hoping to get an opportunity to hang on the line and dry and not go through the spin cycle," he said.

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Nicholas Spangler of The Miami Herald and Gary Estwick of the Akron Beacon Journal reported from New Orleans, and Susannah Nesmith of The Miami Herald reported from Jefferson Parish. Dwight Ott of The Philadelphia Enquirer contributed from New Orleans and Alex Friedrich of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed from Baton Rouge.

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

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