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New Orleans braces for Rita, while putting recovery efforts on hold

NEW ORLEANS—Authorities kept a wary eye on Hurricane Rita on Tuesday, tightening security in the city and working on evacuation plans.

Some people were already retreating.

Jimmy Carmouche, a field inspector for a contractor clearing streets of debris and polluted sludge, said his company isn't waiting to see whether Rita continues on a course for Texas or veers toward New Orleans.

"We're going to be pulling out, as of today," said Carmouche, a New Orleans native. "Nobody is taking any chances this time."

Rita, which became a Category 2 hurricane on Tuesday, is expected to develop into a Category 4 storm by Wednesday afternoon, weather forecasters said.

With its weakened levees, New Orleans is even less capable of resisting a hurricane now than it was before Hurricane Katrina hit last month.

Crews from the Army Corps of Engineers spent Tuesday dropping dozens of 10,000-pound sandbags and moving earth to try to fill two breaches in the London Avenue Canal and one in the 17th Street Canal. Workers also were filling levee breaks that were made to drain still-flooded areas of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, delaying recovery in those areas for days to come.

In other developments:

_President Bush returned to Mississippi and New Orleans for his fifth visit since Katrina, a day after a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll found his overall approval rating at 40 percent, tying the all-time low. The poll found that 41 percent of Americans approve of the president's handling of the catastrophe.

In Gulfport, Miss., Bush attended a meeting of a commission appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour to craft a plan to rebuild the area. He said he'd seen progress in Mississippi since Katrina.

"There is a can-do attitude in the midst of all the trauma and pain," Bush said.

Bush also toured a Folger's coffee plant in Louisiana, where one of the 10 production lines has resumed operation and 150 of 500 employees are working.

_The White House announced that Bush had named Frances Fragos Townsend, a former federal prosecutor who's his homeland security adviser, to lead the administration's investigation into the federal response to Katrina.

_New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he and other leaders expect a more coordinated effort among city, state and federal officials in preparing for Rita.

"This is one leadership team. We may not always agree, but we have one mission: that is to get New Orleans back," Nagin said during an afternoon news conference at which he gave Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen an "I (heart) NO" T-shirt. Nagin and Allen, commander of the recovery efforts in New Orleans, have publicly sparred over whether the mayor's original plan to repopulate New Orleans was wise.

Nagin asked residents to remain patient about moving back into the city, pledging that the moment the threat from Rita passes, plans to bring residents back will resume.

Allen said 500 buses are staged in the state and will be used to evacuate residents if needed. Stocks of water and military-style meals are ready to support a population of 500,000, Allen said.

More than a dozen people came to the city's convention center to board buses leaving the city, National Guard troops said. The soldiers were prepared to man the evacuation point through the night, but didn't expect many more to leave.

With Rita taking aim at the Texas coast, federal officials announced plans to move about 8,000 Louisiana evacuees from shelters in Texas to other states.

In the Louisiana parish of Calcasieu, nearly 3,000 Katrina evacuees are living in shelters that could be hit by Rita. Officials expressed particular concern about the 1,200 evacuees still in the Cajundome in Lafayette. That facility can withstand only a Category 2 hurricane.

Louisiana officials moved 104 special-needs evacuees from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux in the west to Baton Rouge and Alexandria.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials are drawing up evacuation plans for the more than 20,000 federal relief workers and National Guard troops in Louisiana. They would start making decisions about 72 hours before landfall was predicted.

Texas pulled out about 1,000 National Guard troops on Tuesday to prepare for Rita. Authorities said the withdrawal wouldn't affect relief efforts in New Orleans.

If Rita swings toward New Orleans, troops will be moved to high ground, such as high-rise parking decks, said Lt. Gen. Brod Veillon of the Louisiana National Guard. The Guard is prepared to call in more troops from other states if needed.

The USS Iwo Jima and two Carnival cruise ships remained docked in New Orleans Tuesday night. Decisions about what to do with all three ships probably will be made Wednesday, according to a Navy official. The Carnival ships, charted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are housing relief workers and some evacuees.

Across New Orleans, security was much tighter at access points leading into the city. National Guard troops checked papers and turned many people away.

After dusk Tuesday, the city will be locked down to residents and business owners, Nagin said.

Glenda Rankin, along with her husband and daughter, arrived in Algiers on Monday afternoon, the first day Nagin allowed the city's West Bank residents to return to their homes.

Less than 24 hours after they returned, they're packing up again.

"No, we're not staying," Rankin said. "Hurricanes frighten me."

At hospitals, exhausted staff still recuperating from Katrina braced themselves.

"We have a lot in place from the first hurricane," said Avery Corenswet, vice president of the New Orleans operations for Ochsner Clinic Foundation, which has a capacity for about 200 in-patients. "Our generators are still in place. We have kept up our supplies. Living here, you never know what you'll need and when you'll need it."

Ochsner never closed during Katrina, in part because the hospital is on higher ground than other sections of the city and suffered little damage.

Countless other hospitals lost power after Katrina and were unable to care for patients. The district attorney's office is investigating whether some hospitals were negligent in the care of patients who were found dead after the hospitals were evacuated.

Heat in West Jefferson Medical Center rose to 100 degrees after Hurricane Katrina. There was no running water, and the toilets didn't work. Garbage cans that had been filled with water before the storm were the only source of water.

"We're trying to keep the staff calm in the face of this second hurricane," said Mark McGinnis, senior vice president. "Everyone is pretty tired from the first hurricane. Now there's a second one. The trauma doesn't end."

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(Estwick of the Akron Beacon Journal and Spangler of the Miami Herald reported from New Orleans. Frazier of the Charlotte Observer reported from Baton Rouge. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Katherine Corcoran of the San Jose Mercury News, Malcolm Garcia of The Kansas City Star, David Sneed of the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Susannah Nesmith and Carl Juste of the Miami Herald and Jay Root and Mark Horvit of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA

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