New Orleans mayor says French Quarter will reopen in a week and a half |

New Orleans mayor says French Quarter will reopen in a week and a half

NEW ORLEANS – In a big step toward restoring the pulse and soul of New Orleans, the mayor announced plans Thursday to reopen over the next week and a half some of the Big Easy’s most vibrant neighborhoods, including the once-rollicking French Quarter.The move could bring back more than 180,000 of the city’s original half-million residents and speed the revival of its economy, which relies heavily on the bawdy, Napoleonic-era enclave that is home to Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, jazz and jambalaya.”The city of New Orleans … will start to breathe again,” a beaming Mayor Ray Nagin said. “We will have life. We will have commerce. We will have people getting into their normal modes of operations and the normal rhythm of the city.”The announcement came as President Bush prepared to propose a sweeping plan for the federal government to pick up most of the costs of rebuilding New Orleans and the rest of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast – estimated at $200 billion or beyond.”There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again,” the president said in remarks to be delivered to the nation from the French Quarter’s Jackson Square.Nagin said the “re-population” of the city would proceed ZIP code by ZIP code, starting Monday in the Algiers section, a Creole-influenced neighborhood across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. The city’s Uptown section, which includes the Garden District’s leafy streets and antebellum mansions, will open in stages next Wednesday and Friday. The French Quarter will follow on Sept. 26.”The French Quarter is high and dry, and we feel as though it has good electricity capabilities,” the mayor said. “But since it’s so historic, we want to double- and triple-check before we fire up all electricity in there to make sure that … if a fire breaks out, we won’t lose a significant amount of what we cherish in this city.”The plan came a day after government tests showed that New Orleans’ putrid air is safe to breathe, even if the receding floodwaters that still cover half the city remain dangerous from sewage and industrial chemicals.While the areas set to be opened were never part of the 80 percent of New Orleans under water, they still suffered from the failure of services that left them prey to the looting that gripped this city after Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29Now, the designated neighborhoods have 70 percent to 90 percent of their electricity restored, and have water that will be good for flushing and firefighting, if not drinking. The sewer system works, trash removal is running, and at least two hospitals will be able to provide emergency care, authorities said.And Nagin said the city’s convention center, which became a symbol of the city’s despair when thousands of weary refugees gathered amid filth and corpses, will now become a hub of the rebuilding effort. Three major retailers will set up there to sell lumber, food and other supplies.Security will be tight in the reopened neighborhoods. Nagin said a dusk-to-dawn curfew will be enforced, and residents and business owners will be required to show ID to get back in.If the initial resettlement goes smoothly, Nagin said other areas will slowly be brought back to join in what he called perhaps the biggest urban reconstruction project in U.S. history.”My gut feeling right now is that we’ll settle in at 250,000 people over the next three to six months, and then we’ll start to ramp up over time to the half-million we had before, and maybe exceed” that, he said. “I imagine building a city so original, so unique that everybody’s going to want to come.”Also Thursday, Nagin asked mayors across the United States to take censuses of displaced New Orleans residents so the city knows where they are and can communicate with them about reconstruction.Nagin said the city has requested $102 million from a $500 million pot being made available by the federal government to help hurricane-ravaged cities and towns pay for police, fire and other critical services as they rebuild. He said the city’s bankers have also pledged to help New Orleans out of a cash crunch that has left it unable to make its next payroll.Across five Gulf Coast states, the death toll from Katrina climbed Thursday to 794, led by 558 in Louisiana.Despite the good news from the mayor, large sections of New Orleans remained accessible only by boat, and corpses could still be seen out in the open. In flooded streets near the University of New Orleans’ campus along Lake Pontchartrain, two bodies were seen floating face down, and the decomposed corpse of one woman was sprawled on the top step of a church, her skin wrinkled and leathery, her cane lying beside her.In the heavily flooded Ninth Ward, National Guard Col. Michael Thompson said his troops have seen the bodies of several people who had been murdered.”I’ve got a lot of police officers on my staff and they recognize the signs of it. You’d see the entry wound of the bullet and the exit wound,” Thompson said. “So it was obvious that something had taken place other than natural death.”The Army Corps of Engineers said it is getting water pumped out of eastern New Orleans and nearby parishes faster than expected, and most of the area should be dry by the end of this month, or about a week earlier than previously estimated.Tourism brings $10 billion to New Orleans annually and accounts for about 15 percent of the city’s jobs. The city relies heavily on the dollars tourists and conventioneers spend in the French Quarter’s cafes, strip bars, jazz clubs, restaurants and stores. The dollars also feed the Quarter’s cast of characters – the street musicians, mime artists, palm readers, hot dog vendors, street artists.Word of the reopening raised spirits in the neighborhood.”There’s no reason why this area shouldn’t have been taken care of already – it’s where the money is,” said Frank Redmond, who helps run a small French Quarter bar called Evelyn’s Place. “If you want to get people back to work, get this area open, and the tourists, the curiosity-seekers, will want to come back and see what happened.”Around the French Quarter, slate roofs were ripped apart, towering oaks and magnolias were uprooted, and storefronts were left in tatters by high winds, and in some cases by looters. But many say the quarter often looks worse after a good Mardi Gras.Along Chartres Street, Wes Warren was busy lining up dancers for the reopening of his two topless clubs.”As soon as they allow me, I’ll be opening the clubs up and trying to get all the soldiers to come – take away some of the tension,” he said.—Associated Press writers Cain Burdeau, Mary Foster, David Crary and Janet McConnaughey contributed to this report.Vail Colorado

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