Few Phones, Little Drinking Water, But New Orleans Re-opens

By Adam Mossiter, Associated Press Writer

Areas of New Orleans Reopen to Residents

More areas of New Orleans that escaped flooding from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will be formally reopened starting Thursday, Mayor Ray Nagin said.

The areas include the French Quarter, the Central Business district, and Uptown with its historic Garden District. Business owners will be allowed in on Thursday, and residents on Friday.

"The re-entry started Monday and is going very well -- exceedingly well," Nagin told legislators at a hearing Wednesday at the state capitol. "Everything you hoped to happen is happening. Algiers is alive and well and breathing."

On Monday, Nagin opened the Algiers neighborhood, which has electricity, telephones and clean water.

Nagin said checkpoints where officers stop people will be pulled back Thursday so that only areas that were flooded will be off limits. Homes in those areas were heavily flooded and most are likely beyond repair.

If all goes well, as of Oct. 5 only the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit especially hard by the flooding, will be cordoned off, Nagin said.

Electricity has been restored to some dry parts of the city, but the water is not yet drinkable. The mayor disagreed with the head of the state's Health Department about the condition of the city's water, insisting residents could now wash in it, though they shouldn't drink it.

"The two things that are absolutely necessary to ensure public health -- clean drinking water and proper sewage systems -- simply are not available in the east bank area of New Orleans at this time," said Dr. Fred Cerise, secretary for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

"People who re-enter the city may be exposed to diseases such as E. coli, salmonella or diarrhea illness if they do not allow time for the necessary inspections to ensure public health and safety," Cerise said.

Many residents of the city have returned ahead of Nagin's official timeline, and the mayor appeared eager Wednesday to get more of them back.

Nagin complained that state opposition was feeding a misperception about New Orleans, saying: "We're fighting this national impression that we're tainted, we're not ready."

Yet a handout from the mayor's office to returning motorists struck a more cautious tone than Nagin himself. Police and National Guardsmen handed out notices to each arriving vehicle which described the sorry state of affairs:

"You are entering the city of New Orleans at your own risk," it reads, before going on to detail potential health hazards from water, soil and air, and advising residents to bring in food and drinking water, batteries and other needed items. Returning motorists were advised to "drive slowly and carefully and be observant to any road obstructions which might block the way; do not drive through water where any utility line (electric or telephone) is laying in the street. Do not touch or try to remove such wires. Stay away from them."

Nagin also noted that telephone service was still 'mostly non-existent' in much of the city, and where it existed, service was 'spotty' at best. People who are aquainted with the specifics of telephony said what that meant was that corrosion had damaged much equipment and excessive water from Rita and Katrina caused a lot of 'crosstalk' and noisy lines, in addition to 'traffic jams' on fewer than normal circuits; frequent disconnects, etc. Bell officals told Associated Press that lines were being restored 'on a daily basis'.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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