New Orleans Homecoming Stalls As Tropical Storm Approaches

Tropical Storm Rita, churning off the coast of South Florida, may become a hurricane.

Thousands of New Orleans residents who'd been welcomed back to the storm-ravaged metropolis more than three weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina are being asked to turn right around and head for higher ground as Tropical Storm Rita, churning off the coast of South Florida, is expected to graduate to the rank of hurricane within days.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has shelved earlier plans to reopen the recovering city. He'd hoped to have about 180,000 people, or a third of the city's residents, returning to their districts within the week. The plan was criticized by state and local officials as being premature. With drinkable water in short supply, the city is still considered a "hazardous site." And emergency services — such as an operable 911 system — have not been restored, according to CNN.

According to the National Hurricane Center's projections, Rita — with sustained winds of 70 mph — could make landfall near Galveston, Texas, before the weekend. Because of the indiscriminate nature of hurricane paths, forecasters have designated a wide "cone of probability," CNN reports. The storm could enter Florida near Miami and make a second landfall between Northeastern Mexico and the swamplands of Southern Louisiana, just west of New Orleans.

Once Rita reaches the temperate waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it could build up steam, perhaps escalating to a Category 3 storm, according to CNN.

Nagin fears that the city's debilitated levees and flood walls would not be able to withstand the deluge of rain or the storm surge of another strong hurricane (see "New Orleans Evacuates As Mayor Issues 'Desperate SOS' ").

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The news comes as President George W. Bush prepares for his fifth trip to the region, where he'll appraise hurricane-recovery efforts throughout the affected Gulf Coast area. Bush's itinerary includes an on-the-ground briefing on the cleanup efforts as well as a tour of Gulfport, Mississippi, where he'll meet with local business and government leaders, The Associated Press reports.

"There is deep concern about this storm causing more flooding in New Orleans," Bush told the AP. "If it were to rain a lot, there is concern from the Army Corps of Engineers that the levees might break."

On Monday, Nagin imposed a mandatory evacuation for those living on the East Bank of the Mississippi, and also called for the city's districts on the West Bank to withdraw.

"I am hopeful that people have seen the effect of Katrina and they understand the threat of a Category 3 coming right behind Katrina and that we won't have the struggles in getting people out like we had the last time," the mayor told CNN.

There are more than 100 buses stationed outside the city's downtown convention center and at a football stadium in nearby Algiers, CNN reports. Depending on Rita's unpredictable progress, the vehicles may be needed to evacuate residents.

Nagin said that his reopening plan would be revisited as soon as the threat of Rita passed. Meanwhile, several federal lawmakers are calling on the president to explore cuts in government spending in order to counteract the estimated $200 billion it could cost to restore the Gulf Coast (see "Bush Unveils Ambitious Plan To Help New Orleans 'Rise Again' ").

To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.