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Mayor halts return to New Orleans

Nagin cites concern over Tropical Storm Rita

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    NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Mayor Ray Nagin halted the return of New Orleans residents to the city Monday, citing the threat from the strengthening Tropical Storm Rita.

    Nagin said his city's levees and flood walls were weakened by the August 29 impact of Category 4 Hurricane Katrina, which left many neighborhoods on the eastern side of the Mississippi River under water.

    Nagin said one projection he had been shown had Rita becoming a Category 3 hurricane, hitting Louisiana and passing near New Orleans toward the end of the week.

    Another projection, he said, had the storm possibly hitting Galveston, Texas. (Watch Tropical Storm Rita sweep toward Gulf)

    The National Hurricane Center's projections Monday indicated Rita could make landfall on Saturday anywhere from just south of the Texas-Mexico border to the Louisiana-Mississippi state line.

    Dan Hitchings, an Army Corps of Engineers official in Baton Rouge, told CNN that after Katrina, the 350 miles of levees and flood walls that protect the New Orleans area are capable of withstanding only little more than "normal tidal surges."

    Nagin said he was concerned that the pumping stations that empty the city, most of which sits below sea level, would not be able to handle the rain or storm surge of a strong hurricane.

    Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation for residents of the east bank of the Mississippi, and recommended evacuation for districts on the west bank, which did not see much flooding after Katrina. (Watch as the mayor tells residents to leave the city -- 3:09)

    "I am hopeful that people have seen the effect of Katrina and they understand the threat of a Category 3 coming right behind Katrina," he said, "and that we won't have the struggles in getting people out like we had the last time."

    About 150 buses were available for the evacuation at the city's downtown convention center -- the scene of so much misery in the early days after Katrina's destruction -- and at a football stadium in Algiers, the city announced.

    Lt. Col. Bill Doran, Operations Division chief for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the city would have to be evacuated 72 hours before Rita's landfall.

    As of Monday night, Rita was speeding over the central Bahamas at nearly 13 mph, its sustained winds of 70 mph just 4 mph shy of hurricane strength, the National Hurricane Center said.

    Forecasters predicted the storm will enter the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday. (Full story)

    Residents had begun trickling back into one neighborhood Monday as part of Nagin's plan to repopulate the city, a plan state and federal officials -- including President Bush -- had questioned.

    "The mayor -- you know, he's got this dream about having a city up and running, and we share that dream," Bush said. "But we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles that we all confront in repopulating New Orleans."

    Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who is leading the federal recovery effort, called Nagin's plan "pretty problematic," noting the need for drinkable water, an operating 911 system and other services. Bush told reporters in Washington that Allen was speaking for his administration.

    Nagin and Allen held what a federal Department of Homeland Security source called a "short and sweet" meeting Monday afternoon in which they agreed to hold sessions two to three times a week.

    At his news conference, however, Nagin bristled at Allen's second-guessing of his plans to allow residents back in.

    "The admiral's a good man, you know, and I respect him," he said. "But when he starts talking to citizens of New Orleans, that's kind of out of his lane. You know, there's only one mayor of New Orleans, and I'm it."

    Nagin said Monday's announcement was not based on criticism of last week's decision, and he said residents would be allowed to return once the threat of Rita passed.

    Algiers, a west bank neighborhood relatively unscathed by Katrina, was opened to residents Monday, and other areas had been scheduled to follow suit.

    Nagin's plan had called for about 180,000 people -- about a third of the city's population -- to return within the week.

    Allen called on residents to avoid returning to many areas. The mayor told reporters that the sewer system on the east bank was going to take more time to repair than originally thought.

    City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson told CNN that Algiers and nearby areas have grocery stores, a drug store, phone service, potable drinking water, and plenty of military officials around to keep order.

    "Most importantly, we have a bunch of eager citizens that are ready to build New Orleans," she said.

    "The French Quarter -- it will be next, as well as the CBD [central business district]. We will bring home the heart of our tourism and our economy, our business economy."

    Allen urged against such optimistic predictions -- and cautioned people not to rush into repopulating the city.

    He said that while Algiers is prepared for the influx, the east bank, which includes the central business district and French Quarter, is not.

    A two-page announcement from the city government handed to returning residents told them there was a 6 p.m.-to-8 a.m. curfew, they may not leave their designated ZIP codes, and numerous city services don't exist.

    It reads, "Welcome home!" But it cautions, "You are entering at your own risk. The city of New Orleans remains a hazardous site, and ongoing health and safety issues are being assessed."

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