New Orleans: When Can People Come Back?

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Do you know what it means to return to New Orleans? Right now, it means facing some heath hazards, While Mayor Ray Nagin is in a big rush to welcome back business and residents to The Big Easy, especially in The French Quarter and Central Business District, which were relatively untouched by Hurricane Katrina, federal officials, worried about undrinkable water, possible health problems, and few hospital facilities, issued a warning Saturday that coming back might be risky. Admiral Thad Allen, in charge of FEMA's efforts in the area, urged business owners and residents to consider delaying their return rather than risk their health and safety in a city without such basic needs as drinkable water and electricity and gas. Allen also noted that toxins are being released into the air as the city progressively dries out from nearly three weeks under water. One of the things that health officials worry about privately is the lack of hospitals to treat injuries by residents wielding chainsaws and breathing in generator fumes.

Mayor Nagin, perhaps eying with envy the quick return offered to residents in nearby Jefferson County, was trying hard to be upbeat this week. "It's a good day in New Orleans," he said on Thursday. "The sun is shining. We're bringing New Orleans back." He opened up not only the central district but also some residential areas largely untouched by flooded areas with some of the priciest real estate. Still, the federal government warns that the elderly, children and anyone with asthma or allergies should not return. For those who do, precaution includ wearing protective clothing, gloves and masks in areas of dense mold. Tetanus shots are being made available at entry checkpoints for those who have not had one in the past 10 years. Situation reports, issued daily by the city now, seem pretty grim too, warning that all schools are closed, recovery of the dead goes on, water service is lacking even in downtown, and there are 14 new oil spills.

Some business owners, like Gregg Reggio, owner of 11 restaurants in the New Orleans area, say the obstacles are huge. He's swept up, thrown out rotting food, and hopes to reopen his place Zea Rotisseries Grill in the French Quarter soon. But now he's facing the real headaches: Where will he find customers? No tourists are allowed in the city. Where will he house his workers? That is, if he can get them back from Tucson and Dallas and other cities where they have scattered. Will he find willing workers with the construction business paying top dollar for the few bodies around? "Restaurants are what make New Orleans special. When are the tourists going to be back?" says Reggio. "It's one thing to get restaurants operating—we can do that with hard work—but who's going to help restaurants survive after they re-open?" Still, Reggio's pushing ahead, and has started brewing the house beer, with one big chage. "The Category 5 strong ale," he says, "is definitely coming off the menu."