Some New Orleans residents return - federal officials urge delay

Residents began trickling back Monday as part of a plan to reopen New Orleans one postal code at a time, despite repeated warnings from the top federal officials.

Mayor Ray Nagin defended his decision to let people back in, and suggested that the federal official in charge in New Orleans, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, had made himself "the new crowned federal mayor of New Orleans."

Algiers, a neighborhood that is situated across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans and saw little damage from Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, was the first section to be reopened to residents.

Over the next week, the Uptown neighborhood, the Garden District and the historic French Quarter are also set to reopen to residents and businesses at Nagin's invitation, bringing a total about one-third of New Orleans' half-million inhabitants back.

A few gas stations and convenience stores were open, but little else. The manager of Winn Dixie supermarket said he had hoped to be open by Monday, but it took longer than he anticipated to clear out the spoiled food and other debris.

In Washington, President Bush on Monday questioned the plan to let people back in, saying there are too many concerns about additional flooding and safety. "It's a matter of timing," he said after a meeting of his Homeland Security Council.

Bush said there is "deep concern" about the possibility that Tropical Storm Rita, which was headed toward the Florida Keys on Monday, could drop more rain on New Orleans and breach the city's levees again.

"We have made our position loud and clear," Bush said. "The mayor is working hard. The mayor has got this dream about having his city up and running. We share that dream, but we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles."

Nagin, in his turn, defended the decision to bring people back.

"If he's suggesting I'm pushing a little hard, I am. The citizens of New Orleans deserve the opportunity to see what they have left and what they can salvage," Nagin said in response to Allen's warnings.

"I'm a little surprised the admiral came out publicly on this," he added. "Maybe since I've been away a day or two, maybe he's the new crowned federal mayor of New Orleans."

The vice president of the national hospital accreditation organization also cautioned against reopening parts of the city, saying several hospitals probably were damaged beyond repair, while others may try to rush back into business before conditions are safe.

Others, while rebuilding, may lose doctors and nurses to communities elsewhere.

Although the city has more than a dozen hospitals, none has resumed normal operations. Officials at Children's Hospital, which Nagin had hoped would be ready in time for the planned return of residents to the Uptown neighborhood, said they may need 10 more days to prepare.

The flooded areas of New Orleans continued shrinking over the weekend, but crews still searched by boat for the dead. The state Department of Health and Hospitals said the hurricane death toll in Louisiana had risen to 646. The toll across the Gulf Coast was 883.

In the impoverished and heavily damaged Ninth Ward, a search team found four corpses Sunday and also discovered a 39-year-old man who had survived in his home with his dog since the flood. Louie Fernandez, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's search and rescue operations, said the man - who gave his name as Reyne Johnson - was disoriented and taken to a medical center for treatment.

Former President Bill Clinton, speaking on ABC's "This Week" Sunday, put some of the blame for the plight of the poor in New Orleans on the Bush administration, the AP reports.

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