September 30, 2005

Residents return to New Orleans despite levee fears

By Ken Li

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Thousands of people began returning
to storm-ravaged New Orleans on Friday, but local officials
voiced fears that fragile levees could give way once again if
another hurricane strikes.

Roadblocks and checkpoints restricting access into the city
were removed, allowing people who have not seen their homes in
a month to get their first look at the damage caused when
Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and flooded 80
percent of the city.

The smell of rotting food and garbage wafted across the
Uptown and Garden Districts, where utility crews scrambled to
return electricity house by house amid the downed trees and
dangling power lines that still litter the area.

"You ain't seen nothing yet. Just wait till all these
people get here and open their refrigerators," said one Uptown
resident as he cleared his yard of debris.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has pushed for residents'
speedy return even as the state's top health official said the
lack of clean water and a functioning sewage system for most of
the city posed a health risk.

The mayor's re-entry plan has been backed by federal
administrators, who had opposed his previous call for some
residents to return nearly two weeks ago.

That was halted to await Hurricane Rita, which struck the
Texas-Louisiana border last Saturday. It wiped out coastal
communities and caused a storm surge in New Orleans that led to
new flooding. Before Katrina, New Orleans' population was about
450,000 people.


Local officials and residents remain fearful that efforts
by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to shore up the levees and
flood walls that hold back Lake Pontchartrain and the
Mississippi River will fall short if another storm hits the

In the swampy wetlands of Houma to the west of New Orleans,
2,000 people rallied Thursday evening to demand U.S. government
funds to build levees that could withstand the most powerful
Category 5 hurricanes.

"If we don't do anything, this parish could change from
Terrebonne to Terre-gone," councilman Clayton Voison told
cheering crowds, where just a few feet away, Hurricane Katrina
evacuees from New Orleans were bunkered at the town's civic

Army Corps officials have laid out a timetable for the
construction of 10-foot (3-meter) levee walls by December 1,
with pre-Katrina level defenses to withstand a Category 3 storm
completed in time for the start of the 2006 hurricane season in

"Interim is just not good enough," New Orleans city
councilman Jacquelyn Clarkson said after engineers briefed city
officials on plans to bolster levee defenses this week.

The storm surge from the Category 4 Hurricane Katrina
ruptured several sections of a 350-mile (560-km) system of
levees, flood walls and canals designed to protect New Orleans.

Storm surges brought on by the weaker Hurricane Rita
breached some of these quick fixes last week, reflooding areas
such as the poor lower Ninth Ward, which remains off-limits to

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco this week requested $32
billion in federal funding to rebuild southern Louisiana's
shattered infrastructure, of which $20 billion is expected to
be earmarked for levee reconstruction.

So far, only $2.8 billion has been approved for the Army
Corps to repair damaged levees and clean up debris, said state
transportation official Mark Lambert.

On Thursday, New Orleans' acting police chief sought to
clean up the sullied image of the city's police force by
announcing that a dozen officers were under investigation amid
accusations they participated in the wave of violence that
followed Katrina.

Also under investigation were 249 officers who failed to
show up for work during the storm, acting Police Chief Warren
Riley said. He said some of them had been stranded by flood

New Orleans' police department came under heavy criticism
over its apparent inability to control the chaos after Katrina.

(Additional reporting by Matt Daily and Ellen Wulfhorst)