New Orleans Residents Return, But Too Soon?

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has urged residents of several of the city's neighborhoods to return, but warns that they enter "at their own risk." Meanwhile, President Bush on Monday voiced concerns that the city remains unsafe, echoing FEMA officials who say it may be too soon for evacuees to return. Alex Chadwick speaks with Robert Smith, reporting from New Orleans.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, North Korea says it does plan to stop building nuclear weapons in exchange for economic aid.

First, the lead. To the Gulf Coast, where residents are streaming back into the Algiers section of New Orleans and again federal and local officials seem to be out of step with each other, this time over whether it's too soon to bring residents back to the city. President Bush got into the discussion today, speaking at the White House this morning.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And we want to work with the mayor. The mayor's working hard. The mayor--you know, he's got this dream about having his city up and running. And we share that dream. But we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles that we all confront in repopulating New Orleans.

CHADWICK: And there are plenty of them. NPR's Robert Smith is in the city.

Robert, the president was echoing sentiments that we heard this morning from Thad Allen, the man in charge of the federal government's hurricane response. You're there in New Orleans. What about this?

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Well, you know, for the residents who are coming back into Algiers, which is across the Mississippi from downtown, they're handing them a list of things that can basically go wrong. And it's a scary list. It basically says don't touch anything, don't eat anything that's been left behind, don't drink the water, don't bathe in the water, don't wash in the water, don't breathe the mist of the water. And then it sort of lists all the other things that can happen if you come back in: fires in your homes, carbon monoxide, mold, traffic problems. It's--for someone brave enough to come back in, this may scare them back out again.

CHADWICK: Just to be clear, the Algiers section of the city--was that flooded or no?

SMITH: It was not flooded and they have electricity for the most part. They still don't have drinkable water. But there are people who sort of have spent the whole time in the Algiers neighborhood and have felt safe about that. At the same time, the bigger picture is not in place around them. The hospital's not staffed, 911 not fully staffed. And so the debate over this is, yes, your home may not have been flooded, you may be able to move right back in, but is the rest of the city around there to support you?

CHADWICK: Is it...

SMITH: And the answer really is no, not yet.

CHADWICK: Yeah. Well, why is it that the mayor is kind of encouraging, really encouraging people to come back at this point?

SMITH: Well, you know, there's--a New Orleans resident told me last night, `If you tell a New Orleans resident not to do something, that's exactly what they want to do.' And already people have been, I would say, sneaking back into the city, but it's not really leakproof. You know, anyone can drive in if they know enough of the roads and not hit a checkpoint. So people have been coming back in. The mayor was looking at the parts of the city that were not fully flooded and saying, `We have to start somewhere; we might as well start with these neighborhoods.' But even the city is starting to rethink--they're talking with the federal government today and starting to rethink maybe opening other neighborhoods other than Algiers.

CHADWICK: And when Thad Allen, the vice admiral from the Coast Guard who's running the federal operation down there--when he says they don't have any emergency response available and the levees are not secure, that would put you off a little, wouldn't it?

SMITH: Well, especially with a tropical storm brewing off the coast and perhaps headed toward the Gulf. Last night, people who, you know, were starting to come back in the city and feeling rather safe about it were rather terrified about what would happen if another storm hit here. And it doesn't even have to be a big storm. We went out to see the levee last night on the 17th Street Canal, and it's not very high. It's probably 10, 15 feet under what it should be. It's holding the water now and they're pumping out the water and most of the areas of the city are now dry, but, you know, clearly any sort of heavy rain event here in New Orleans could cause another levee breach.

CHADWICK: NPR's Robert Smith in New Orleans.

Robert, we'll follow that story with you, and thank you.

SMITH: You're welcome.

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