NEW ORLEANS - New Orleans residents will be allowed to return to the driest areas of the storm-battered city at the end of this week, many for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit nearly a month ago, according to a new timetable announced by the city's mayor.
Under the plan by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, only areas still flooded, specifically the city's hardest hit Ninth Ward, will remain off limits to residents by the middle of next week. Everyone else can go home for good.
Nagin's initial plan to repopulate the city soon after Katrina struck on Aug 29 came under criticism from federal officials as premature. That plan was postponed last week due to the Hurricane Rita.
Now New Orleans residents have been pleading to be let back in.
"We're doing it as quickly as we can, and we're doing it as safely as we can," the mayor said at an appearance in Baton Rouge.
He said progress has been made to restore city services, including some electrical power. But he instructed residents of some neighbourhoods to continue boiling their water.
"We're getting things done. For those who say we're not ready, take that," he said. "I'm frustrated that every time we get to the point of talking about re-entry, another official comes out and says we're not ready."
Under Nagin's timetable, residents can return on Friday in areas that did not flood or flooded very little. Those include the historic French Quarter, the Central Business District and uptown neighbourhoods, including the elegant Garden District.
HOW MANY WILL RETURN?
It's unclear how many of the city's estimated 1 million displaced residents will return.
"So far we lost a lot of people who don't want to come back. Maybe they'll change their mind," said Georges Keedy, a worker in the Central Business District.
The mayor said houses have been inspected and those deemed structurally unsafe will sport red stickers and people should not stay in them, he said. Most problems returning residents will encounter will be structural.
By Wednesday, he said, people should be able to return to every location except the lower Ninth Ward, which is still underwater from renewed flooding from Hurricane Rita.
So far, most residents have been allowed to visit limited parts of the city to assess damage, but they could not stay. In the Algiers section, which did not flood, residents have been allowed to move back home.
"It's been a month. Some people have to have closure. They have to decide life-altering decisions," said Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, New Orleans city council woman, whose district includes parts of the Ninth Ward.
On Thursday, businesses will have nearly full access to the areas of the city that did not flood, Nagin said.
As the mayor made plans to rebuild the city, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco began lobbying Washington for support to rebuild the storm-battered state.
Blanco declined a chance to respond in Congress to comments by the former head of the federal disaster agency blaming her for problems in the response to the storms. She said she would rather focus on her economic request.