NEW ORLEANS – Bars, restaurants and shops had just begun showing signs of life when the mayor suspended the reopening of the city and ordered nearly everyone to leave town again as a new hurricane headed toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The call for another evacuation came after repeated warnings from top federal officials, including President Bush, that New Orleans (search) was not safe enough to reopen. Federal officials warned that Tropical Storm Rita — upgraded to a hurricane Tuesday morning — could breach the city's weakened levees and swamp New Orleans all over again.
There appeared to be little effort to enforce Mayor Ray Nagin's (search) new evacuation order Tuesday morning, and some National Guard units were withdrawing from the city. The troops have been living tents in the city's Algiers section near a levee that officials fear could break.
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Jill Sandars, a 55-year-old contract paralegal and Web site designer who lives in the French Quarter (search), did not evacuate before or after Katrina but said she may leave this time if New Orleans appears threatened. She said she is tired of the conflicting information from city officials about whether people should come or go.
"I don't have the energy for highs and lows any more," Sandars said. "I'm just maintaining day-to-day."
Karen Torre, a labor lawyer in the officially closed Uptown neighborhood, said she came back into the city Tuesday morning to do some cleaning up before leaving again later in the day.
"First it was come back, then it was go," she said. "We're just trying to do what they tell us, and get a few things done in between."
Rita strengthened into a hurricane and lashed the Florida Keys with heavy rain Tuesday. Packing winds of 100 mph, the storm was expected to gain strength as it crossed the warm Gulf of Mexico and could hit Texas over the weekend. But officials warned it could instead veer off and hit Louisiana as early as Thursday.
Maj. Arnold Strong of the Louisiana National Guard said three inches of rain from Rita could cause a levee break that could flood New Orleans again. He said the Guard is pulling back to the town of Alexandria "so we can go to wherever we need to go" later.
"We want to handle this in an organized way," he said, "so we're planning for the worst."
The president, meanwhile, was scheduled to make his fifth trip to the Hurricane Katrina zone on Tuesday to get an on-the-ground briefing on the cleanup and visit a business trying to get back on its feet.
The death toll in Louisiana jumped by 90 to 736, as receding floodwaters allowed search crews to reach more of the city's devastated neighborhoods. The toll across the Gulf Coast was 973.
The mayor backtracked on Monday and abandoned his plan to quickly reopen Algiers, the French Quarter, Uptown and the Garden District — some of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods — to 180,000 of New Orleans' half-million inhabitants over the next week.
"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.
The city requested 200 buses to assist in an evacuation. They would start running 48 hours before landfall from the downtown convention center and a stadium in Algiers.
Nagin had wanted to reopen New Orleans quickly to get the storm-battered city back in the business of luring tourists. But federal officials — including the top man on the scene in New Orleans, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen — warned that such a move could be a few weeks premature, pointing out that much of the area does not yet have full electricity and still has no drinkable water, 911 service or working hospitals.
With the approach of Rita, the president added his voice, saying he had "deep concern" about the possibility that New Orleans' levees could be breached again.
About 20 percent of the city is still flooded, down from a high of about 80 percent after Katrina, and the water was expected to be pumped out by Sept. 30.
The dispute over the reopening was just the latest example of the lack of federal-local coordination that has marked the disaster practically from the start.
Nagin complained that Allen had "stepped outside his lane by talking directly to the citizens of New Orleans."
"I respect what federal officials are doing down here, but they do not fully comprehend what it's like to lose your home, to lose everything and not know and to be sitting out there for three weeks. So I think it's important for people to come back and at least take a look," Nagin said on NBC.