Feds Urge Caution on Return to New Orleans

Mayor Ray Nagin's plan to have 180,000 city residents back in New Orleans soon runs into federal skepticism. Vice Admiral Thad Allen says there's no potable water in the city and much contaminated standing water.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The debate is ratcheting up over when residents of New Orleans should return home. The city's mayor, Rag Nagin, wants people back in this city this week, but the federal official in charge of the hurricane recovery effort says it won't be safe for people to live there. NPR's Martin Kaste has this report from New Orleans.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

With all the gloom about the future of New Orleans, Mayor Nagin has come up increasing pressure from locals to accelerate the repopulating of the evacuated city. On Thursday, he surprised federal officials with an aggressive plan to start reopening certain neighborhoods.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): We're bringing New Orleans back, and this is our first step. We're reopening up this city and almost 200,000 residents will be able to come back and get this city going once again.

KASTE: Many exiled New Orleanians greeted the plan as a sign of hope, but federal officials are worried. The FEMA boss in the region is Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, and he has not been shy about questioning the plan. Allen says even the unflooded areas of the city may still be too risky for habitation because of spotty electrical service and undrinkable water. But on "FOX News Sunday" today, Allen acknowledged that he doesn't have the authority to stop Nagin's plan.

(Soundbite of "FOX News Sunday")

Vice Admiral THAD ALLEN (US Coast Guard): But I think I'm capable of giving some very good counsel. I've spoken in the last 24 hours with the head of the EPA and the director for the Centers for Disease Control, and our collective counsel is for him to slow down and take this at a more moderate pace.

KASTE: Bringing business owners back first is key to the mayor's plan, and some companies have been eager to reopen, especially downtown businesses that stand to profit from the influx of government relief workers. Some downtown hotels have opened, and the French Quarter strip joints are about to. But smaller enterprises may be more hesitant.

(Soundbite of tapping noise)

KASTE: At a hardware store outside the city, Jay Labourdeau(ph) is buying wood to fix the front door on his dry-cleaning shop in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. Someone drove a forklift through the door during the looting. The mayor says that particular neighborhood should reopen officially by the end of the week, but Labourdeau's not sure what to expect.

Mr. JAY LABOURDEAU (Business Owner): I'll be up and running this week if I have electricity. But the question is: Who's going to walk in the front door? There's no one ever around. A guy owns a bar on the corner from me. He was patching his roof and then he left, so he's not looking to open soon.

KASTE: It's hard to predict how much of an influx to expect as neighborhoods reopen. Some New Orleanians are so anxious they're jumping the gun. In the Algiers neighborhood, Marilyn and Bernel Eldore(ph) are already sitting on their front porch today, and they've been here since Thursday, a full four days ahead of the mayor's schedule. The Eldores say the mayor is right to invite people back in.

Mr. BERNEL ELDORE (New Orleans Resident): Now if he has been given reasonable advice--he has people out here checking the area to see if it's liveable, then let them in. Let people back in.

Mrs. MARILYN ELDORE (New Orleans Resident): We gots to come back eventually, so why not start and get it over with? Why just sit around and not do nothing wait on other people to do it? Start trying to help yourself some.

KASTE: So far the early arrivals have been a tiny group and the city is still mostly empty. The real test will come tomorrow morning when Algiers becomes the first neighborhood to open officially. The size of the traffic jam, or the lack of one, should say a lot. Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.

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