The head of federal recovery efforts warned on Saturday it was too soon for many to come home to New Orleans as the city’s business districts struggled to find a pulse in wreckage of Hurricane Katrina.
Signs of life flickered in the commercial center and historic French Quarter of the famed party city as merchants inspected their abandoned shops and restaurants, while in areas harder hit by the killer storm rescue workers were said to be finding more bodies.
Local officials allowed business owners back for the first time since Katrina struck on August 29 as they sought to restore commerce and put the Big Easy on the road to recovery.
One well-known French Quarter eatery, Alex Patout’s Louisiana Kitchen, placed tables covered with white tablecloths out front and started serving the state’s signature dish — red beans and rice.
“Just wait ’til we get the Mardi Gras music going,” said restaurant worker Annie Lewis. In a hopeful sign, electricity was restored to part of the Quarter on Saturday.
The opening for business was part of a phased restarting of the city announced earlier by Mayor Ray Nagin, who said residents of the least-affected areas could begin coming back on Monday.
Some have questioned Nagin’s plan because schools, some hospitals and almost all businesses remain closed nearly three weeks after Katrina, and the city — now mostly empty but usually home to half a million people — is without basic services in many areas.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of federal relief operations in the storm region, warned on Saturday that New Orleans was not ready for its people to come back.
“As the city of New Orleans begins its re-entry program this morning, there are continued concerns that the damaged electricity, water, sewage and safety systems are not restored to a level that can meet the basic needs of the businesses and residents who return,” Allen said in a statement.
“I urge all residents returning to use extreme caution if they return and to consider delaying their return until safer and more livable conditions are established,” he said.
STILL UNDER WATER
Floodwaters still cover 40 percent of the historic city, but were dropping quickly as pumps shot water back into Lake Pontchartrain.
The receding waters allowed search and rescue teams their first look into many homes that had been submerged for nearly three weeks and were said to reveal a growing Katrina death toll.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the teams were turning up large numbers of bodies in districts such as the 9th Ward, Gentilly and the Desire-Florida, which quickly filled with up to 12 feet of water after Katrina broke a nearby levee.
“Parts of the city have become a target-rich environment for human remains,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency rescue squad liaison Charles Hood. “It’s becoming a very difficult task.”
FEMA Urban Search and Rescue spokesman Louie Fernandez said he had not heard of a dramatic increase in the number of dead.
As of Friday, Katrina’s death toll stood at 816, with 579 of those in Louisiana, 218 in Mississippi and a total of 19 in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Louisiana officials said they would not update their numbers until Sunday.
While the chore of collecting the dead went on, returning merchants assessed the damage to their businesses in the neighborhoods that fared better in Katrina.
In the central business district, Tony and Sharon Schembre were surprised to find their family’s 88-year-old brass polishing and plating shop in good shape. They vowed to reopen soon.
“We’re coming back. I figured if there was too much damage we would not, but we’ll definitely be back,” Tony Schembre said.
French Quarter perfume shop owner Amy Wendell predicted the famed heart of the city would bounce back quickly.
“It’s not going to take long for the Quarter. We are the backbone of New Orleans,” she said.
The Quarter, known for its rowdy night life and quaint buildings, suffered little flooding because, unlike most of the city, it sits above sea level.
Katrina forced a million people from their homes, hundreds of thousands of whom are now in refugee shelters or temporary housing across the United States.
The biggest concentration was in Houston, where 27,000 evacuees once filled the Astrodome complex. On Friday, the last of those in the sports stadium had been moved elsewhere.
In Saturday’s Democratic national radio address, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco thanked America for taking in the displaced.
“As long as the Mississippi River flows into the gulf, we will never forget your generosity,” she said.
“We will bring our people home as soon as we can.”
(Additional reporting by Maggie Fox and Kieran Murray in New Orleans and Ben Berkowitz in Baton Rouge)
© Reuters 2005.