New Orleans Mayor Halts Evacuees' Return to City Mayor Ray Nagin suspends his ambitious plan to reopen parts of New Orleans. He said he was concerned about the threat from Tropical Storm Rita, now moving west toward the Gulf of Mexico. The mayor was also under pressure from federal officials who say the city is still unsafe.

New Orleans Mayor Halts Evacuees' Return to City

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Today residents began moving back into parts of New Orleans despite federal warnings that the city is not safe. Homeowners in the Algiers section returned this morning. Algiers is across the Mississippi River from the central city and was largely unaffected by flooding. The mayor of New Orleans has set out an ambitious plan to reopen parts of the city, but federal officials, including President Bush, have asked the mayor to slow down. NPR's Robert Smith reports from New Orleans.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Marcus Spencer has had a busy morning, on his first day back in New Orleans.

Mr. MARCUS SPENCER: You see my yard. I've already come home. I've cut the grass. I've already cleared out my refrigerator. I mean, my whole street looks livable. We just need bodies to come back.

SMITH: The Algiers neighborhood where Spencer lives, across the Mississippi from the French Quarter, was lucky. Fallen branches, blown shingles, but very little water damage. The issue in the area now is a chicken-and-egg problem. No one wants to bring back residents without essential city services up and running, but businesses don't want to open up without demand.

Mr. SPENCER: The place is livable, but we don't have people to live--I mean, businesses can't boom until people come back home. I can't go to work as a health-care provider until people come home.

(Soundbite of chain saw)

SMITH: Down the street, Jared Thomas(ph) and his brother are cutting through hanging tree branches. Thomas is a loss prevention expert who's just moved back. He's seen worse damage than this neighborhood. The debate over whether he should even be here to him is more political than structural.

Mr. JARED THOMAS: I think the major problem was the--I think the failure of government from the top all the way down to the bottom to the local police department--I think that was our major problem. If it wouldn't have been for that, we could have stayed in the city and helped clean up after the storm was over, which we're doing now.

SMITH: The Algiers neighborhood is just the first step in a rapid plan by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to repopulate the city. Last week the mayor set up a time table to open the Uptown and Garden District neighborhoods this week, the French Quarter by next Monday. But Mayor Nagin has been under mounting pressure to back off this plan. President Bush, after a meeting of his Homeland Security Council this morning, says the timing concerns him.

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

SMITH: Those include, the president said, environmental concerns about the safety of living in New Orleans. The city lacks drinkable water, homes are contaminated and tropical storm Rita gathering strength in the Caribbean may be headed toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Pres. BUSH: If it were to rain a lot, there is concern from the Army Corps of Engineers that the levees might break. It's--therefore, we're cautious about encouraging people to return at this moment of history.

SMITH: Mayor Nagin has argued that people have the right to at least come back in and see the damage on their homes. He's also argued that the city needs to be jump-started with businesses and residents, and the areas he's opened that are the least affected by Katrina. But even among the residents who returned today, there is doubt. Tracy Rolfes was hauling groceries into her Algiers home from the one store still open in the neighborhood. She's brought her two kids back from Texas this morning, and now she's having second thoughts.

Ms. TRACY ROLFES: My concern right now is really the quality of the air. I mean, I didn't even take that--didn't even think about that, really. I mean, I'm wondering is it OK to be out here?--'cause there's rotten food everywhere, and the garbage is picking it up, but whatever they drop on the ground they don't pick it up.

SMITH: And as for tropical storm Rita, Rolfes doesn't even want to think about it. She says she heard the storm track might be headed toward Texas, and if so, she joked, she's happy to return the favor and open her doors to any Texans who want to flee the storm. Robert Smith, NPR News, New Orleans.

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