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By JULIA SILVERMAN
Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Streams of cars filled with business owners started to make their way back into newly reopened sections of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans on Thursday, and they pledged to rebuild their city.
A month after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin invited business owners back into the city, and prepared to allow most residents to return over the next week.
For some, Thursday marked their first view of what was left. For others, they didn't need a formal invite to return. Those who had already slipped in were ready to welcome back their fellow business owners and patrons.
At Igor's, a pub and laundromat in the city's Garden District, owner Halina Margan had returned after Katrina and in the pre-Hurricane Rita lull _ and never left. She was ready to open for business on Thursday, and get ready for the influx of returning residents.
"Igor's has never closed until this nasty little bitch of a hurricane," Margan said. "It's lonely here, we need people."
At precisely 7:20 a.m., a long line of cars began snaking down St. Charles Avenue, the Garden District's main thoroughfare, lined with stately homes and small businesses _ and now littered with portable toilets, downed tree limbs and signs advertising hurricane cleanup help "for cheap."
Massive holdups on the highways leading into the city never materialized, and at least in the early hours of the return, seemed orderly and smooth.
A day earlier, Nagin said he's fighting a national impression "that we're tainted, we're not ready."
Besides the Garden District, Nagin opened the city to business owners from the French Quarter, the Central Business district and Uptown, which includes the historic Garden District.
"People are saying it's too early to bring back jazz, the gumbo and the red beans," Nagin said recently. "If it's too early, when is the right time?"
Nagin complained that state opposition to reopening the city was feeding a misperception about New Orleans, saying: "We're fighting this national impression that we're tainted, we're not ready."
The areas being repopulated largely escaped flooding after Hurricane Katrina struck one month ago and many people have returned ahead of the mayor's timeline.
Still, a handout from Nagin's office struck a cautious note.
"You are entering the city of New Orleans at your own risk," it reads, before going on to detail potential health hazards from water, soil and air, and advising residents to bring in food.
Electricity has been restored to some dry parts of the city, although Entergy Corp. said only about 17 percent of the city has power.
The mayor has disagreed with the head of the state's health department about the condition of the city's water, insisting residents could now wash in it, though they cannot drink it.
"The two things that are absolutely necessary to ensure public health _ clean drinking water and proper sewage systems _ simply are not available in the East Bank area of New Orleans at this time," said Dr. Fred Cerise, secretary for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
"People who re-enter the city may be exposed to diseases such as E. coli, salmonella or diarrhea illness if they do not allow time for the necessary inspections to ensure public health and safety."
Earlier this week, Nagin formally opened the Algiers neighborhood, which has electricity and clean water. Nagin told legislators Wednesday that "everything you hoped to happen is happening. Algiers is alive and well and breathing."
If all goes well, as of Oct. 5 only the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit especially hard by the flooding, will remain cordoned off, Nagin said.
Louisiana's official death toll from Katrina rose to 896 on Wednesday. Only 32 bodies have been positively identified and released to funeral homes chosen by their families, said Dr. Louis Cataldie, who heads the body recovery process in Louisiana.
Associated Press Writer Adam Nossiter in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)