NEW ORLEANS – President Bush on Tuesday accepted blame for the government’s feeble initial response to Hurricane Katrina as New Orleans took the first baby steps towards normalcy with an unexpected mayoral announcement that between 100,000 and 150,000 residents likely would be allowed to move back into this beleaguered city in less than a week.

The acknowledgement by Bush, coming just a day after Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Mike Brown resigned, seemed to mark a turning point for an administration that consistently has sought to deflect criticism of relief efforts as a counterproductive “blame game.” The president, in a joint press conference with Iraq’s visiting president, conceded that the handling of the recent disaster raised questions about the nation’s preparedness for terrorist attacks.

At the same time, the first criminal prosecution to stem from Hurricane Katrina was launched on Tuesday. The husband-and-wife owners of a nursing home near New Orleans were charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of 34 people during the flooding unleashed by Katrina. Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti said the couple, Salvador and Mable Mangano, ignored repeated warnings that the storm was coming. Their failure to evacuate their vulnerable elderly patients from St. Rita’s Nursing Home “resulted in the deaths of these patients,” Foti said.

But perhaps the most unanticipated announcement of the day came from New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. Even as military helicopters circled overhead and search and rescue teams continued to pull dead bodies from water-logged homes, Nagin stood in historic Jackson Square and announced that air and water testing conducted throughout the city by the Environmental Protection Agency had yielded much more optimistic results than expected. The tests showed that at least three of the city’s neighborhoods, including the venerable French Quarter, were safe to occupy again, he said.

“If I had to guess, I’d say by Monday we can open parts of the city,” Nagin said, going on to qualify that such a move would only be possible if a written EPA report that he was expecting to get by day’s end was as positive as a verbal briefing of the report that he already had received over the phone earlier in the day.

Nagin said he hoped residents would be allowed to enter the city from dawn until dusk once portions of New Orleans were reopened. Unlike other cities that have allowed people back in only for brief periods to assess their damages and grab a few necessities from their homes, these New Orleans residents would be allowed back permanently.

All the neighborhoods that may be reopened – the Central Business District, Uptown and the French Quarter – still have significant power outages, but local energy officials were predicting that these areas would be 100 percent online for power by the time residents were allowed back in. Water, too, Nagin said would be running, though probably not yet safe to drink.

Along with officials from the National Guard, the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and FEMA, Nagin spoke at Tuesday afternoon’s press conference with more optimism than he has in the more than two weeks since Katrina struck the region with such brutality that levees collapsed, New Orleans flooded and countless other small communities were literally wiped off the map.

“We’re bringing the city of New Orleans out of nuclear crisis mode and back to day-to-day mode,” the mayor said. A short while later, when the drone of helicopters drowned out what he was telling reporters, Nagin sighed and said, “I’m tired of hearing helicopters. I want to hear some jazz.”

In other signs of life, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport reopened to commercial flights Tuesday when Northwest Airlines Flight 947 from Memphis, Tenn., landed around midday with about 30 people aboard. The New Orleans waterfront illustrated the city’s gradual recovery as well: A shipment of steel coils left the port by barge Monday, bound for a Hyundai auto plant in Greenville, Ala., port spokesman Chris Bonura said.

Search and rescue squads – the teams that once had been pulling hundreds of stranded people from rooftops each day – were said to have rescued only about 30 people from homes and buildings throughout New Orleans, an “all-time low,” according to Nagin. Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, the commander of the 82nd Airborne, concurred, saying that only about 3,000 people remained in the city. Police officials continued to insist they were not forcing people to leave their homes but rather were informing them they were in violation of a mandatory evacuation order and strongly encouraging them to leave.

But not all news was so rosy.

Most grim was the ever-rising death toll. The number of people who have died in Louisiana jumped by more than half Tuesday to 423 as recovery workers turned more of their attention to gathering the corpses in a city all but emptied out of the living. The state Health Department announced the new death toll, which represented a sharp increase from 279 a day before. And the number of dead is all but certain to rise, because some flooded-out areas of the city have not been fully searched.

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Although Nagin hinted that once residents were allowed back into New Orleans the city would take “a week or so” to assess the situation and then try to start luring tourists and their accompanying dollars back as well, he didn’t have answers for all the practical questions that would go along with such a move. For example, he couldn’t say how restaurants would prove they were back up to health codes if the city government and its various inspection agencies were not yet back to work.

Nagin also admitted the city was bankrupt, though he emphasized that he hoped it could avoid declaring Chapter 11 by securing loans that would allow it to continue to pay city employees until at least the end of the year.

“We’re working to get a line of credit that will sustain us,” the mayor said.

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In Washington it was announced that the president would return to Louisiana on Thursday to deliver a nationally televised address to the American public about Katrina, the government’s response and the recovery under way. Bush already has made three trips to the hurricane-stricken region, including a two-day tour of Louisiana and Mississippi earlier this week.

On Tuesday, standing alongside Iraqi President Jalal Talibani at a joint news conference after their meeting at the White House, Bush said, “I want to know what went right and what went wrong. I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question that you asked: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm? And that’s a very important question. And it’s in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on and – so that we can better respond.”

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In the wake of the wide criticism of FEMA, Bush praised those volunteering to help with the cleanup in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

“I’m not going to defend the process going in, but I am going to defend the people who are on the front line of saving lives,” Bush said. “Those Coast Guard kids pulling people out of the … floods … did heroic work. The first responders on the ground, whether they be state folks or local folks, did everything they could. There’s a lot of people that are – have done a lot of hard work to save lives.”


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