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US Official: Too Soon for New Orleans Residents to Return

Federal officials say it is too soon for residents to return permanently to New Orleans, which was devastated at the end of August by Hurricane Katrina. The mayor is allowing some of the city's nearly 500,000 residents to return for brief periods to areas less devastated by the storm to assess damage.

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, cities like New Orleans are still not ready for people to return, according to the head of U.S. relief efforts, Vice Admiral Thad Allen. He says the Environmental Protection Agency and federal health officials have found dangerously unhealthy conditions.

"Preliminary sampling that was done in conjunction with the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control, on the standing water in New Orleans, indicated very high levels of e-coli and fecal coliform, creating a significant health hazard, if you come into contact with it. In addition, there is no potable water in the city at this time," said Mr. Allen.

He spoke on the NBC television program "Meet the Press." He was responding to a question about whether he agrees with the New Orleans mayor's plan to begin allowing residents back this week.

Admiral Allen added that the Army Corps of Engineers has informed him that the city's levees are still in a weakened state. He said this means they may not be able to withstand another storm, even if it is not as severe as Katrina.

"Any plan to repopulate the city must be accompanied with a detailed plan on how individuals will be notified, how they will be evacuated, in time, so they are not impacted by any storm," he added. "That planning has been progressing with the city. But it's not yet complete, and it's one of my concerns with the repopulation that might proceed sooner than we would like."

Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton expressed his optimism that the city will continue to draw residents.

"And New Orleans, I think, will be repopulated at about the level it was before the tsunami, I mean, the hurricane. But it will be different people, that is, not all the people that left will come back," said Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Clinton said he thinks the government should spend what he described as an "appropriate" amount of money for hurricane relief. But he added that he thinks the government should not, in his words, "just throw money blindly" at Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

So far, Congress has approved $62 billion for Katrina relief. And, in a speech Thursday night, President Bush gave no figures, but said the federal government will pay most of the costs of recovering from the killer storm. Analysts predict the final figure could exceed $300 billion.

"And I don't think the government has to do it all," he added. "There are lots of things that can be done through the private sector, and there are lots of things that are going to be done with Katrina through the private sector."

President Clinton said a fund he co-heads with former President George H. W. Bush has already raised close to $100 million. He added that his organization will soon announce how it plans to spend the money.