Battered New Orleans goes to polls

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Still staggering after Hurricane Katrina ravaged their city, New Orleans voters were yesterday selecting the candidate they want to lead one of the biggest reconstruction projects in US history.

Twenty-two candidates - including Mayor Ray Nagin, who was criticised by some for his tackling of the disaster - will appear on the ballot in the first municipal election since Katrina slammed into the Gulf coast on 29 August last year.

If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent, a runoff between the top two will be held on 20 May. The winner faces a host of politically sticky and racially charged decisions about where and what to rebuild in a city where whole neighbourhoods remain uninhabitable.

Four-fifths of the city was flooded, and large parts are still woeful tracts of ruin. Rebuilding plans - and the government money to pay for them - are still being debated. Nearly all the public schools remain closed, and the tourism business, long the economy's mainstay, is equally moribund. The election, which includes city council seats and other local offices, was originally scheduled to take place in February but was postponed because of the damage and dislocation caused by Katrina.

The turnout is being closely watched by civil rights groups, who have questioned whether the election, in a city that once was two-thirds black, will be fair with so many black voters scattered about the country.

Fewer than half the city's pre-Katrina population of 455,000 have returned. As a result, candidates have had to travel to cities such as Atlanta and Houston, where many evacuees live, to get their message out.