NEW ORLEANS – Streams of cars filled with business owners started to make their way back into newly reopened sections of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans (search) on Thursday, some vowing to rebuild their city, some pulling out.
A month after Hurricane Katrina (search) hit the Gulf Coast, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin invited business owners back into the city, and prepared to allow most residents to return over the next week.
For some, Thursday marked their first view of what was left. Others didn't need a formal invitation to return. Those who had already slipped in were ready to welcome back their fellow business owners and patrons.
At Igor's, a pub and coin laundry in the city's Garden District (search), owner Halina Margan had returned after Katrina — and never left, despite Hurricane Rita's threat last week. She was ready to open for business on Thursday and get ready for the influx of returning residents.
"Igor's has never closed until this nasty little ... hurricane," Margan said. "It's lonely here. We need people."
At precisely 7:20 a.m., a long line of cars began snaking down St. Charles Avenue, the Garden District's main thoroughfare, lined with stately homes and small businesses — and now littered with portable toilets, downed tree limbs and signs advertising hurricane cleanup help "for cheap."
Mary Russo, of Jefferson, La., parked her car Thursday in front of Shanty Too, her niece's boarded-up boutique on chic Magazine Street, and started to cry. The trash on the streets was the worst, she said through her tears.
Her niece couldn't bear to come, so Russo and other relatives were there to bring what was salvageable to her other shop in St. Francisville, about 30 miles north of Baton Rouge.
The Magazine Street store will close down for good, Russo said.
"I just can't believe this has happened to the city," she said. "So much of this could have been avoided."
At least in the early hours, the return seemed orderly and smooth, without massive holdups on the highways leading into the city.
Thousands had come in by around 8 a.m., Police spokesman Capt. Marlon Defillo said.
"We're experiencing no real difficulty," he said. "Everybody's cooperating. We see a great number of people coming in."
A day earlier, Nagin said he's fighting a national impression "that we're tainted, we're not ready."
Besides the Garden District, Nagin opened the city to business owners from the French Quarter, the Central Business district and Uptown, which includes the historic Garden District.
"People are saying it's too early to bring back jazz, the gumbo and the red beans," Nagin said Wednesday in Baton Rouge. "If it's too early, when is the right time?"
Nagin complained that state opposition to reopening the city was feeding a misperception about New Orleans, saying: "We're fighting this national impression that we're tainted, we're not ready."
Still, a handout from Nagin's office struck a cautious note.
"You are entering the city of New Orleans at your own risk," it reads, before going on to detail potential health hazards from water, soil and air, and advising residents to bring in food.
Electricity has been restored to some dry parts of the city, although Entergy Corp. said only about 17 percent of the city has power.
The mayor has disagreed with the head of the state's health department about the condition of the city's water, insisting residents could now wash in it, though they cannot drink it.
Earlier this week, Nagin formally opened the Algiers neighborhood, which has electricity and clean water. Nagin told legislators Wednesday that "everything you hoped to happen is happening. Algiers is alive and well and breathing."
If all goes well, as of Oct. 5 only the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit especially hard by the flooding, will remain cordoned off, Nagin said.
Louisiana's official death toll from Katrina rose to 896 on Wednesday. Only 32 bodies have been positively identified and released to funeral homes chosen by their families, said Dr. Louis Cataldie, who heads the body recovery process in Louisiana.