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Mayor: French Quarter will reopen in a week and a half

NEW ORLEANS — Mayor Ray Nagin announced Thursday that large sections of the city will reopen next week, and the historic French Quarter the week after that. "The city of New Orleans ... will start to breathe again," he said.

The announcement came amid progress in restoring electricity and water service and the day after the release of government tests showing that the floodwaters contain dangerous bacteria and industrial chemicals but that the air is safe to breathe.

The first section to reopen to residents will be Algiers, across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, on Monday, the mayor said. The city's Uptown area — which includes Tulane University and the Garden District, a leafy neighborhood of antebellum mansions — will be reopened in stages next Wednesday and Friday, he said.

The French Quarter — an exuberant and often bawdy neighborhood of Napoleonic-era buildings that serves as the capital of Mardi Gras and is the very heart and soul of the city's rollicking tourism industry — will follow on Sept. 26.

"The French Quarter is high and dry, and we feel as though it has good electricity capabilities," the mayor said, "but since it's so historic, we want to double- and triple-check before we fire up all electricity in there to make sure that, because every building is so close, that if a fire breaks out, we won't lose a significant amount of what we cherish in this city."

The mayor also said business people will be allowed into the central business district on Saturday and Sunday. But he did not address whether that section would be reopened.

The reopened areas generally suffered little or no flooding and were among the least-damaged parts of New Orleans. They represent 182,000 residents out of a city of nearly half a million.

"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 of New Orleans that is so unique," the mayor said. He added: "It's a good day in New Orleans. The sun is shining. ... We're going to bring this city back."

Nagin said there should be power in most areas where people will be allowed back. But the water in some places will be good only for flushing toilets, not for drinking and bathing, he said.

The mayor said major retailers will use the city's Convention Center to supply returning residents with food, wood and other things they will need.

The return will mark the start of what the mayor said will probably be 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," he said. "I imagine building a city so original, so unique, that everybody's going to want to come."

The death toll in Louisiana climbed to 474 on Wednesday, and is expected to rise further as state and federal officials go about the monumental task of collecting the bloated and decayed corpses and identifying them through DNA. The overall death toll in five states reached 710.

Government tests released Wednesday found dangerous amounts of sewage-related bacteria in the floodwaters, along with lead from unknown sources and high levels of industrial chemicals such as arsenic. But tests of the city's foul-smelling air found no significant health risks.

The floodwaters continued to recede on the city's hard-hit east side, revealing a pathetic scene: Block after block of once-flooded neighborhoods is covered in a slimy, putrid muck and dotted with ruined cars, snapped utility poles and collapsed houses.

The Coast Guard and other rescue teams kept up the search for bodies by boat and helicopter in areas that were still under several feet of water. A few homes in the area bore spray-painted marks indicating that bodies were inside.

Identifying the dead is "going to take months, maybe years," said Dr. Louis Cataldi, the coroner for Baton Rouge Parish. "This is not going away."

President Bush planned to make a prime-time address from New Orleans on Thursday to offer new federal spending for helping hurricane victims rebuild their lives.

The most obvious sign of progress has been the lights flickering back on. About 168,000 customers were still without power in the New Orleans area, mostly in places still flooded, but the number has been going down.

The Hibernia Corp., Louisiana's oldest bank, whose landmark building was once the city's tallest, turned on its lights at sunset Wednesday. The bank is well-known for the colors that light up the building's cupola during the holidays.

About 40 percent to 50 percent of the city was still flooded, down from 80 percent after Katrina hit, as pumps worked to siphon off 8 billion gallons a day.

On Wednesday, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco indefinitely postponed elections that had been scheduled for October and November in New Orleans and outlying Jefferson Parish. The elections included races for the school board, Kenner City Council and a judgeship.

Associated Press writers Cain Burdeau, Mary Foster, David Crary and Lisa Meyer contributed to this report.