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New Orleans Endures New Floods in Rita's Wake


Renewed flooding and widespread power outages spread across New Orleans as Hurricane Rita blew through the Gulf Coast. But for a city already reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the damage from Rita was far less than feared. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports from New Orleans.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

City officials couldn't check out the damage that Hurricane Rita caused until the winds died down, then they surveyed the area by helicopter. Along the St. Claude Street Bridge, a turtle swam by homes and cars that had been saturated once before in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Engineers worked to repair three city levees that failed during that storm, but the winds of Hurricane Rita pushed water over the top and through the newly patched Industrial Canal levee, and the houses in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward again sat like islands in floodwaters that covered the streets. Mayor Ray Nagin called it depressing but says it could have been worse.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Democrat, New Orleans): The levee's still being overtopped, so there's still water flowing in. The water depth seems to be anywhere from six to 12 feet in certain sections. The good news is that we don't have anybody down here, we were able to successfully evacuate and the rest of the city looks OK.

CORLEY: Iron pilings used at the two other weakened levees remained intact. Stephen Browning with the Army Corps of Engineers says their sides allowed the Corps to use material which formed a stronger barrier.

Mr. STEPHEN BROWNING (US Army Corps of Engineers): The Industrial Canal is very wide and very deep and is also influenced by the river. So there's no way to block that particular canal from a storm surge.

CORLEY: The Corps began repairing the levee for a second time yesterday, dropping sandbags in an effort to make the barrier at least 10 feet tall. The next step will be to pump the water out. Power company officials worked quickly to restore electricity in areas that Hurricane Rita had knocked out, and Mayor Nagin says now that the storm has passed, it's time to start bringing people back to the nearly vacant city. He'll soon ask evacuees to return to the Algiers neighborhood, which was not harmed by floods, and he'll encourage business owners to come back even though it's still hurricane season.

Mayor NAGIN: And when we talk about re-entry, we're talking about people that are mobile. We're not asking people to come back with a lot of kids, with a lot of senior citizens unless you can move fairly quickly. And when I mean fairly quickly, within 48 hours of a storm hitting, you need to be able to move. And that's going to be the reality of New Orleans for a little while going forward until we can rebuild our levee systems up to the heights that they need to be.

(Soundbite of tire iron dropping)

CORLEY: Some businesses are already operating in New Orleans. At St. Claude's Used Tire Shop(ph) on the dry side of the St. Claude Bridge, workers are taking tires off their rims. This is the place where police and city workers come to get their tires repaired. It's the only business open on a street full of decimated buildings. Owner Joseph Peter(ph) says he stayed in town during Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. JOSEPH PETER (Owner, St. Claude's Used Tire Shop): And I was here late Sunday night fixing tires, letting people get out that wanted to leave. So Monday morning, I was here when the water came. There wasn't nowhere to go there. When the water started going down, I went back to fixing tires.

CORLEY: And he stayed even when Hurricane Rita approached. Despite the repeat flooding, Peter says other cities in the state faired far worse and God blessed New Orleans this time around. Peter says the mayor is absolutely right to call for residents to return. He says other cities have come back after tragedy.

Mr. PETER: They burned Chicago up one time; they rebuilt it. Did they not? All right. They'll rebuild New Orleans. We'll build it bigger and better.

CORLEY: Bigger? A lot of people think it's going to be smaller.

Mr. PETER: It may be smaller, but it'll be bigger. It'll be big-small. You understand?

CORLEY: Despite the optimism, Hurricane Rita proved that New Orleans is still a city in peril. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.