Mayor urged to slow return of New Orleans residents

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The Independent US

"We must offer the people of New Orleans every chance for a sense of closure and the opportunity for a new beginning," Mayor Ray Nagin said, defending his plan to open the Algiers, French Quarter and Garden District areas - where the floods have receded and power and running water have been restored - over the next 10 days and allow in up to 180,000 people.

Mr Nagin's decision was criticised by the man with whom he is supposed to be working to ensure the swiftest possible recovery for New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago.

Coast Guard Vice-Admiral Thad Allen, the new head of the federal disaster relief effort, described the mayor's plan as "extremely ambitious and extremely problematic". The admiral continued his criticisms yesterday and they are likely to be the focus of a meeting between him and Mr Nagin today.

"I've spoken in the last 24 hours with the head of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and the director of the Centres for Disease Control, and our collective counsel is for him to slow down and take this at a more moderate pace," he said on Fox News.

Federal officials were concerned about health and safety issues regarding the quality of mains water and concentrations of E.coli and fecal coliform bacteria, Vice-Admiral Allen said. He also raised questions about the condition of the repaired levees, questioning the wisdom of permitting tens of thousands of people back in case there were fresh problems with weakened levees or another hurricane.

"If you bring significant amounts of people into New Orleans, you need an evacuation plan," he said.

The conflict between the two men highlights the problems faced by officials as they try to return New Orleans to some sense of normality. With hundreds of thousands of residents still displaced and with no idea when they might return, Mr Nagin is desperate to see some sort of life return to the city and to help get businesses operating again as soon as possible.

"Promoting the return of commerce to New Orleans and the region is key if we are going to realise our common objective: to bring New Orleans back," he said.

While the federal relief effort might share the long-term aims, Vice-Admiral Allen is also charged with overseeing safety. Experts say the return of people will result in scores of accidents.

"The second wave of disaster is when you welcome the people back and the infrastructure of the city is not in place," said Peter Deblieux, an emergency room doctor at New Orleans Charity Hospital. "We will see the chainsaw people - lacerations of the left thigh, lacerations of the left forearm."

Lights returned to the French Quarter on Saturday as power was restored in some areas. Business owners began the task of cleaning up in order to reopen, hoping there will be enough customers to make it worthwhile. However, it may be more than a year before tourists return to the city.

Katrina's death toll currently stands at 816.