Sunday, September 18, 2005

A premature homecoming

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is once again exhibiting the confoundingly bad judgment that has become his trademark. Despite warnings from federal officials, he is now insisting that his storm-torn city will be ready for habitation within two weeks:

Mayor Ray Nagin defended his plan to return up to 180,000 people to the city within a week and a half despite concerns about the short supply of drinking water and heavily polluted floodwaters.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, head of the federal disaster relief effort, said Saturday that Nagin's idea is both "extremely ambitious and "extremely problematic."

But Nagin said his plan was developed in cooperation with the federal government and balances safety concerns and the needs of citizens to begin rebuilding.

"We must offer the people of New Orleans every chance for a sense of closure and the opportunity for a new beginning," he said.

Nagin said the Algiers, Garden District and French Quarter sections would reopen over the next week and a half, bringing back more than one-third of the city's half-million inhabitants. City officials later backed off setting a specific date for reopening the famous French Quarter the city's main tourist draw.

Allen said a prime public health concern is the tap water, which in most of the city remains unfit for drinking and bathing. He said he was concerned about the difficulties of communicating the risk of using the water to people who return and might run out of bottled water.

Another concern is the risk of another storm hitting the region, threatening an already delicate levee system and possibly requiring residents to be evacuated again, he said.

These worries are not unfounded as we see in another story from today concerning tropical storm Rita:

Long-term forecasts show the system heading generally toward the west in the Gulf of Mexico toward Texas or Mexico later in the week, but such forecasts are subject to large errors. That means that areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina could potentially be in the storm's path.

``Once it reaches the Gulf, really everybody should pay attention at that point,'' Brown said.

Below is a picture showing the projected path of this new storm:

As you can see, even if Rita doesn't change course, the coastal region of Louisiana will likely catch the dangerous outer bands of this hurricane. Normally this wouldn't be much cause for concern but when you're looking at an already weakened city with damaged levees...

Going back to the AP story, we learn that federal officials are not quite as in-sync with the mayor as he would have us believe:

Allen, who planned to meet with Nagin on Monday, said federal officials support the mayor's vision for repopulating the city, but he is concerned about the mayor's timeline.

"Our intention is to work with the mayor -- in a very frank, open and unvarnished manner," he said.

In other words, stop running your mouth to the press, Mayor!

And what of Nagin's call for store owners to reopen their doors in the city? A bold gesture for sure, but there seems to be one little snag -- the merchandise is gone:

Business owners were allowed back in to some sections of the city to begin the long process of cleaning up and rebuilding, part of Nagin's plan to begin reviving the city by resuming a limited amount of commerce.

But confronted with damage that could take months to repair, many said hopes for a quick recovery may be little more than a political dream.

"I don't know why they said people could come back and open their businesses," said Margaret Richmond, owner of an antiques shop on the edge of the city's upscale Garden District that was looted. "You can't reopen this. And even if you could, there are no customers here."

The Wal-Mart store in uptown New Orleans, built within the last year, survived the storm but was destroyed by looters.

"They took everything all the electronics, the food, the bikes," said John Stonaker, a Wal-Mart security officer. "People left their old clothes on the floor when they took new ones. The only thing left are the country-and-western CDs. You can still get a Shania Twain album."

If the store had not been looted, it could be open in two weeks, Stonaker said. Now he doubts it will be open by January. "They'll have to gut it and start over," he said.

It is difficult to determine the thinking behind the impetuous beckoning home of the citizens of New Orleans. Some of it I'm sure is an effort on the part of Nagin to cast himself in a more positive, "leaderlike" light after his profanity laced break-downs of recent weeks. Some of it may also be driven by a fear that if he doesn't act quickly, the people of New Orleans may get settled into their new environment and not want to return -- something that is already happening to a certain extent.

Yet another factor is an inability on the part of Nagin to accept the circumstances he is confronted with. How does one cope with the realization that he is a public official presiding over a ghost town? Undoubtedly there is a desire to simply flip a switch and have everything back the way it was.

But things don't work that way -- and when you are the mayor of a major city you should have the maturity to know that. It is irresponsible to play with the lives of the citizens you serve just because you have gotten a little antsy to get things working again. These people have already escaped this disaster once -- why ask them to come back and potentially re-live it a second time?

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