Plans to officially re-open parts of New Orleans have drawn criticism from federal officials and health care experts, who say city services might not be able to handle the influx of people.
Mayor Ray Nagin said residents may return yesterday to Algiers, a section of the city across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans that saw little damage from Hurricane Katrina. Over the next week and a half, Uptown, the Garden District and the French Quarter, the city's historic heart, are also due to open to residents and businesses.
All are sections that did not flood, but Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, head of the federal government's hurricane response, has urged Nagin not to rush people back into areas where basic services, such as drinkable water, telephone and emergency services are still not in place.
Allen also expressed concerns that another storm, even something considerably smaller than Katrina, could cause the patchwork repairs to New Orleans' levees to fail and bring another round of flooding. On Sunday, a new tropical storm called Rita formed southeast of the Florida Keys and appeared to be headed for the Gulf of Mexico, although forecasters did not expect it to hit the battered Gulf Coast.
Allen and Nagin planned to meet yesterday to discuss the concerns.
The vice president of the national hospital accreditation organization also cautioned against re-opening 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.
"Essentially the health care infrastructure of New Orleans is gone -- it no longer exists," said Joe Cappiello, who had just completed a three-day mission to the city for the Illinois-based Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
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 Garden District's Touro Infirmary, one of the city's largest hospitals, announced plans to reopen on Wednesday, when residents are due to start moving back there. That would make it the first to reopen since the storm. Cleaning crews were busy Sunday carting out debris and readying the hospital.
Some city residents have already returned and many said they met little resistance at checkpoints. Power is scheduled to return to the French Quarter by Friday and to Uptown by next Monday, a spokesman for Energy New Orleans said.
In the New Orleans suburbs, a few gas stations were open in Matairie, along with a handful of coffee shops and burger joints.
Officials gave the all-clear for the return to neighboring Jefferson Parish on Sunday. "It feels good to come out again," said Rolita Smith, 38, who ventured out to buy a bottle of whiskey for her cousin's birthday.
Brobson Lutz, New Orleans' former health director and an assistant coroner for Orleans Parish, said the hospitals will not be up to accreditation standards, but the city still needs them open as soon as possible.
"I don't believe the people in New Orleans or the doctors give a hoot whether they accredit our hospitals or not," Lutz said. "We need to have our emergency rooms open so that if people returning need emergency care for trauma or infections or other things, they can get it."