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A SHATTERED GULF COAST

New Orleans Residents Return to Remains of Lives

Some are pleasantly surprised to find little damage. But many others face devastation.

October 01, 2005|J. Michael Kennedy and Martin Miller | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — Standing in the muck that once was her childhood home, Lauren Newell began to shake.

She cast an eye about the living room, at the rot of mold that was creeping up the walls, turning white paint black. There was a sadness as she picked up the few items inside the lakeside home that had not been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

"My folks decided to cancel their flood insurance a couple of months ago," she said. "The water never got that high. It just didn't seem worth it."

Throughout New Orleans on Friday, in selected ZIP Codes, residents were allowed back into their neighborhoods to assess the damage. Others weaved through back streets and around police roadblocks to areas that were not officially reopened.

In so many cases, the returnees were greeted by the dismal prospect that it would take years to get back to normal.

In an effort to get the city back on its feet, Mayor C. Ray Nagin reopened the French Quarter and the Uptown section of New Orleans. Residents had been allowed earlier to return to Algiers, a middle-class neighborhood across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. Together, the various reopened parts of the city were home to about a third of New Orleans' 500,000 residents.

Newell wore white rubber boots Friday as she trudged into the downstairs bathroom and returned with a plastic container of small tubes and bottles. "My mom's hair-coloring stuff," she said. "She'll want it."

In the early morning, others began returning to the city.

Ronnie Lee was heading for the French Quarter on his bicycle to pick up supplies. He said he'd returned to his ruined home on the outskirts of the French Quarter after Katrina because he "couldn't deal with the madness of the Superdome."

Andrew Haab, who had worked as a night security guard at the New Orleans federal courthouse, threaded his way through the empty streets Friday morning, just as he has for weeks. His house was destroyed by Katrina, but he said he thought he still had a purpose helping animals and people.

"Every couple of days," he said as he dropped supplies off at one woman's house, "I bring her some ice and food. It keeps me from going nuts in this hellhole."

He also took food to Alvin Ernst, who had not seen his wife in weeks.

"She left on a boat," Ernst said. "The last time I saw her she was floating away down the street. I haven't heard from her since."

Ernst had his four dogs, but had lost his cats to the flooding.

The waters once ran knee-deep in the city's Treme district, near downtown. The area has been pumped out, but it's still without power and adequate sanitation.

Residents on Friday were allowed back into the once-lush district, where greenery has given way to thickets of fallen limbs and branches. A thin, rust-colored layer of dirt blankets its streets.

Cherie Holton, 55, put on a surgical mask and walked into her small, second-story apartment for the first time since she fled Katrina.

The smell from the refrigerator burned her nose. Her two dozen Jack Daniels shot glasses had been knocked off the wall. But her home -- where Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard died in 1893 -- was still structurally sound. Even the windows were intact.

Holton said she was surprised that the streets in her neighborhood weren't clogged Friday. "I left early this morning because I thought there was going to be a crush of people," the court reporter said.

She moved to New Orleans from Canoga Park 18 months ago. "I made it through the Northridge quake, and I'm surprised there wasn't more damage to my place this time," Holton said. "As soon as the power is back on, I'm moving back in."

Several blocks down the street, Galen Marquis, 54, came home for the first time since escaping the city a week after the hurricane. His small upstairs apartment, built in the 1850s and originally used as slave quarters, had lost most of its roof.

On Friday, the biblical scholar -- who spent the last 25 years in Israel -- showed up to see what was salvageable.

Not much.

His walls were awash in mold. His keyboards, worth several thousand dollars, were beyond repair. The moisture had bent his ceiling fans' blades like bananas and ruined most of the biblical texts he had recently had shipped from the Middle East.

But not everything was lost.

"Hey," said Marquis, pointing to a frame hanging on the wall. "My R.E.M. ticket from the Tel Aviv concert in 1994 survived."

Marquis was supposed to have started teaching modern and biblical Hebrew at Tulane University this semester. Now he isn't sure what he'll do next. If he can work at the university, he wants to stay.

"I want this to be my last stop," he said.

Some residents couldn't wait for officials to give the all-clear to glimpse their former lives.

"Tank" Odds, 28, spent most of Friday morning rummaging through his cousin's blown-out apartment in the city's hard-hit 9th Ward.

"There were dead animals in there," Odds said. "Everything we ever worked for is gone. The little stuff, pictures. Everything. Tell me, how are you going to replace stuff like that?

"I loved this city," he said, "and it didn't love me back."

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