NEW ORLEANS – In a few days, residents will begin moving back into New Orleans one ZIP code at a time, speeding the revival of the economy in places like the French Quarter (search) — the bawdy enclave that suffered relatively minor damage in the hurricane but is still without electricity.
Mayor C. Ray Nagin (search) announced plans Thursday to reopen some of New Orleans' most vibrant and least flood-ravaged neighborhoods over the next week and a half, including the French Quarter. The move could bring back more than 180,000 of the city's half-million inhabitants.
"The city of New Orleans ... will start to breathe again," 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 proposed a sweeping plan for the federal government to pick up most of the cost of rebuilding New Orleans and the rest of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast (search) — estimated at $200 billion or more.
"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," the president said from the French Quarter's Jackson Square.
Nagin said the "re-population" of the city would start Monday in Algiers, 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 reopen in stages next Wednesday and Friday.
The French Quarter will follow on Sept. 26.
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.
On Friday, a shirt-sleeved delegation of senators led by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., began a tour of New Orleans, pledging a bipartisan recovery effort.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., noted that he been coming to New Orleans since he was 18. "I plan to keep coming another 50 years if I can," he said. "I see a lot of stirring around here. I see optimism. I see hope."
The neighborhoods that are being reopened have 70 percent to 90 percent of their electricity restored, as well as water for flushing toilets 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.
The plan to reopen 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.
Nagin said electricity would be restored to the French Quarter after the area is checked several times to make sure a fire won't break out from flipping the switch.
Business owners have been anxiously awaiting the return of electricity, which will bring back the glowing neon signs of the strip clubs and bars on Bourbon Street.
"If we get power, we can bring the dancers in and start working," said Javier Rosado, who's been helping clean the Big Daddy's strip club so it can reopen.
Even though business will not be as it was before the storm, Rosado said, the opportunity to make money still exists in the near-desolate city. "The soldiers keep passing by and asking when we'll open," he said. "I'm sure we'll make money."
While the areas set to be reopened 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. 29.
Katrina did not leave the Quarter entirely untouched — magnolia trees were uprooted, awnings were shredded and looters broke into some stores — but the old city center often looks worse after Mardi Gras.
Nagin also said Thursday that the city's convention center, which became a symbol of the city's despair when thousands of refugees were stranded there for days after the hurricane, will now become a hub of the rebuilding effort. Three major retailers will set up there to sell lumber, food and other supplies.
If the initial resettlement goes smoothly, Nagin said residents in 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."
Nagin asked mayors across the country to start counting displaced New Orleanians so the city knows where they are and can communicate with them about reconstruction.
However, a poll in Friday's Washington Post found that fewer than half of all hurricane survivors from New Orleans who evacuated to Houston shelters plan to return home, while two-thirds of those who want to move somewhere new expect to settle permanently in the Houston area.
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, two bodies were seen floating face down, and the decomposed corpse of a woman was sprawled on a church step, her cane lying beside her.
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, about a week earlier than previously estimated.
In another encouraging step, the state Health Department reopened some oyster beds southwest of New Orleans on Friday. Louisiana produces 35 percent of the nation's oysters.