New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the evacuation of his city on Monday, fearing the effect of another approaching storm on still-weak flood defenses just as New Orleans showed the first signs of coming back to life.
US President George W. Bush was planning his fifth trip to the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone later yesterday, while the death toll across the Gulf Coast neared 1,000.
The call for another evacuation came after repeated warnings from top federal officials -- including Bush himself -- that New Orleans was not safe enough to reopen. Federal officials warned that Tropical Storm Rita could breach the city's weakened levees and swamp the city all over again.
Nagin did not offer any specifics about how he plans to enforce the renewed evacuation order, and some business owners who had just reopened their doors wanted to stay put.
The mayor reversed course even as residents began trickling back to the first neighborhood opened as part of Nagin's plan, the lightly damaged Algiers district.
"Now we have conditions that have changed. We have another hurricane that is approaching us," Nagin said.
He warned that the city's pumping system was not yet running at full capacity and that the levees were still very weak.
Nagin ordered residents who slipped back into the still-closed parts of the city to leave immediately. He also urged everyone already settled back into Algiers to be ready to evacuate as early as today.
The city requested 200 buses to assist in an evacuation. They would start running 48 hours before the storm's landfall from the downtown convention center and a stadium.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, in a televised address on Monday, also urged residents of coastal southwest Louisiana to make preparations to leave.
"We will pray that Rita will not devastate Louisiana, but today we do not know the answer to that question," she said.
Tropical Storm Rita was headed toward the Florida Keys and was expected to become a hurricane, cross the Gulf of Mexico and reach Texas or Mexico by the weekend. But forecasters said it also could veer toward Louisiana.
"We're watching Tropical Storm Rita's projected path and, depending on its strength and how much rain falls, everything could change," said Colonel Duane Gapinski, of the Army Corps of Engineers task force that is draining New Orleans and repairing the levees.
Brigadier General Robert Crear said the Corps hopes to have the levees back to being capable of handling a Category 3 storm by June next year, the start of the next hurricane season.
Under the mayor's original plan, the Garden District, the French Quarter and Uptown were supposed to reopen one postal code at a time between today and next Monday, bringing back about 180,000 of New Orleans' half-million inhabitants.
Del Juneau, owner of a Bourbon Street lingerie shop in the once-raucous French Quarter, said it would be premature to order another evacuation based on the storm nearing Florida.
"Where are you going to go? What are you going to do?" he said. "I'm not going anywhere."
The death toll in Louisiana spiked by 90 to 736 on Monday, as receding floodwaters allowed search and recovery crews to accelerate their probes into the city's decimated neighborhoods.
The toll across the Gulf Coast was 973.
With the approach of Rita, Bush added his voice to those urging caution, saying he had "deep concern" about the possibility that New Orleans' levees could be breached again.