LOUISIANA, September 3 – New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said the city remains vulnerable and asked hundreds of thousands of people who fled Hurricane Gustav to wait a little longer before returning home.
Hospital workers, city employees and others deemed crucial to reviving deserted communities are being allowed in, but everyone else was being turned away until power is restored and streets made safe.
The mandatory evacuation of residents will only be lifted Thursday, Nagin said.
"I’m still concerned the picture is not as good as we thought it would be. It’s not just us, it’s the entire region," Nagin told a news conference.
"We need a little more time to make sure we create the right environment for our citizens to be totally safe," he said.
"It is my humble opinion that the city is still in a very vulnerable state. I’m doing this to let our citizens assess for themselves the condition of their properties and make a decision whether they want to stay," he said.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal stressed that much still had to be done to prepare for the evacuees’ return.
"This was a serious storm that caused serious destruction across our state," he said.
"The hospitals don’t have power, in some cases water, and sewer systems aren’t operating. They don’t have traffic lights," he said.
But he noted that US President George W. Bush had approved Tuesday a declaration of the region as a "major disaster" zone, making federal funding available for temporary house and home repairs and more rebuilding assistance.
He also announced that the government was releasing 250,000 barrels of oil from its strategic petroleum reserve, needed for fuel for consumers after the region’s refineries saw their production curtailed by the storm.
On Monday, Jindal had warned that most of the gasoline stations in the state were empty, posing a huge problem when many of those who fled the coast in cars and trucks begin driving back to their homes.
Only 10,000 people were estimated to have remained in New Orleans, a city of 300,000 people, when Gustav pushed into the Gulf coast Monday amid fears of a repeat of the catastrophic flooding that came with Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
Louisiana officials deflected criticism that the largest evacuation in US history was an over-reaction to Gustav, which dwindled from a "monster storm" to a tamer Category Two tempest by the time it hit mostly uninhabited coastland south of the famed jazz city.
"I can’t stress enough how important that was to move people out of harm’s way," Jindal said during a Tuesday morning press conference in the state capitol Baton Rouge.
While uprooted and shattered trees blocked streets the biggest obstacle to people returning to New Orleans was the lack of electric power. Local utility companies said that more than a million homes and business were without power.
Nagin said evacuees will be brought back in phases, with city workers and business operators first to open shops and get things working before residents arrive.
Plans are in place to re-open schools in New Orleans and other parishes next Monday.
"I would anticipate on Wednesday we can start to receive some of our key businesses and hopefully Thursday or Friday our citizens can come back," Nagin told CNN.
Bush, whose response to Katrina in 2005 drew widespread condemnation, was scheduled to visit Louisiana Wednesday to survey the damage.
The US leader has worked to show that he is on top of disaster response efforts after Gustav came ashore.
"We recognize that the pre-storm efforts were important and so are the follow-up efforts," Bush told a news conference.
"In other words, what happens after the storm passes is as important as what happens prior to the storm arriving."
In New Orleans, storm hold-out Willie Sherman did loads of laundry while electric power was briefly restored to his Gentilly district neighbourhood.
Sherman rode out Gustav in his house, just as he hunkered down for the Katrina storm that drowned his mother in 2005.
"I trust God," Sherman said as he stroked a dog. "If you can’t trust him through a storm when can you trust him at all?"