Areas of the city newly flooded by Hurricane Rita (search) could be pumped dry again within a week after levee damage is repaired, far sooner than initially predicted, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (search) spokesman said Sunday.
Workers dumped rock and sandbags into breaches in the city's Industrial Canal throughout the night and were expected to complete the repair Sunday, said Mitch Frazier, a spokesman for the corps.
The storm surge created by Rita eroded repairs made after Hurricane Katrina (search) and sent water surging back into the already devastated Ninth Ward. Once the breach is closed, engineers now believe the area could be dry in a week, Frazier said.
Federal officials had said Saturday it would take two to three weeks to pump out the water delivered by Rita.
The water level in the Ninth Ward already had dropped dramatically on Sunday, a day after Rita blew ashore along the Louisiana-Texas state line, and the sun was shining.
"It looks like the weather is improving," said Frazier. "That's good news."
The Corps of Engineers trucked rocks and airlifted giant sandbags to plug one of the ruptured levees, but the corps' commander on the ground was leery about how stable the makeshift repairs to the city's fragile flood-control system would prove.
"It's so dependent on the weather," said Col. Richard Wagenaar, the corps' district chief in New Orleans.
On Saturday, Mayor Ray Nagin (search) renewed his delayed plans to allow some residents to return to the drier parts of the city. He said he thought the dry districts would eventually support a population of between 250,000 and 300,000.
Nagin said he wanted residents of the Algiers neighborhood, which has electricity and water, to start returning as early as Monday or Tuesday, followed by people in other ZIP codes.
"We're talking about people who are mobile. We're not asking people to come back who have a lot of kids, a lot of senior citizens," he said. "That's going to be the reality of New Orleans moving forward."
However, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal disaster effort in the city, sounded a cautionary note Sunday about any return to New Orleans. The city can continue allowing business operators to return to unaffected areas of the city and letting residents return to the West Bank and the Algiers area, Allen said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
"Where the mayor needs some thoughtful approach to is the areas that have been reflooded and the areas that may remain uninhabitable for safety, health and other reasons," the admiral said. "And I think a timetable associated with that still needs to be worked out."
The Corps of Engineers estimates the city's system of levees will not be completely repaired until June. With a month left in the hurricane season, there's no guarantee that another storm will not undo the next round of hard work to bring New Orleans back to life.
Elsewhere in the city, flooding continued from lesser levee problems, heavy rain and Lake Ponchartrain, which lapped over the seawall on Friday and remained above its normal level.
The renewed flooding in the Ninth Ward brought a stoic response from many locals helping to clean up a pub on St. Charles Avenue.
"They need to start getting people back into the city to do all the work that needs to be done," Neuell Griffith said.