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Tropical Storm Rita Forces Halt of New Orleans Return

By William Yardley


Under pressure from President Bush and with a new storm threatening the Gulf of Mexico, Mayor C. Ray Nagin on Monday suspended his plan to allow people to return to this vulnerable city. Instead he immediately called for a mandatory evacuation of many of the residents who have returned or never left.

“This is a different type of event,” the mayor said of Tropical Storm Rita. “Our levee systems are still in a very weak condition. Our pumping stations are not at full capacity, and any type of storm that heads this way and hits us will put the east bank of Orleans Parish in very significant harm’s way. So I’m encouraging everyone to leave.”

The mayor reversed himself hours after Bush questioned whether it was safe for residents to return to the city and reiterated warnings by Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, who is leading the federal recovery effort, that the city’s levee system was weakened, its 911 system was not working, its hospitals were closed and its air and water were fouled by pollutants.

“Admiral Allen speaks for the administration,” Bush said in Washington on Monday, adding, “We have made our position loud and clear.”

“The mayor needs to hear, and so do the people of New Orleans, our objective,” the president said. “Listen, I went there, and stood in Jackson Square to say we want this city to re-emerge. As I said, I can’t imagine America without a vibrant New Orleans. It’s just a matter of timing, and there’s issues to be dealt with.

“If it were to rain a lot, there is concern from the Army Corps of Engineers that the levees might break. And so, therefore, we’re cautious about encouraging people to return at this moment of history.”

The dispute over access to the city once again reflected three weeks of tension, despite public reconciliations, between federal and local authorities over the response to the Hurricane Katrina, which struck Aug. 29.

Asked at his own news conference in New Orleans on Monday whether political pressure had forced him to reverse himself, Nagin said the approaching tropical storm, as well as sewer system problems, prompted the change.

“I understand the federal government was a little, uh, excited about the plan,” he said. “They didn’t feel as though conditions were quite right. But my thought has always been that if we have this many resources in the city working cooperatively then we could correct just about any situation that was out there.”

Forecasters said Tropical Storm Rita, which passed through the Bahamas on Monday, was expected to strengthen into a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico later this week and potentially strike Texas, near the coast of Louisiana. The mayor asked those remaining in the city to leave now or at least “be prepared” to evacuate as soon as Wednesday, depending on the storm’s path.

The terms of the evacuation were not fully clear. The mayor said the east bank of the city, which includes historic neighborhoods like the French Quarter as well as those most devastated by flooding, was still under the mandatory evacuation he issued before Hurricane Katrina. But he said people still in those areas would not yet be forced to leave.