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THE NATION

There's Little Future Here

Residents of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward get their first glimpse of the damage. For one woman, it was 'look and leave' -- and mourn.

October 13, 2005|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Six weeks after the flood, on the first day they could come back to look at their homes, some residents of the Lower 9th Ward managed small moments of victory Wednesday, recovering bits of their pre-hurricane lives.

A favorite piece of china. A photo album stored on a high closet shelf. In one home, a battery-operated clock, still ticking, still telling correct time.

But in most of the low-lying, poverty-stricken neighborhood -- one devastated by Katrina and smacked again weeks later by Rita -- there were scenes of near-total loss. Hardly anybody who came home to the Lower 9th Ward seemed to think these homes could ever be lived in again.

City officials concede as much: They called it a "look and leave" operation. For the first time, those who fled could come back, but only to look for valuables, and certainly not to stay -- not in a place where many houses were almost fully consumed by floodwaters.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 16, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Returning evacuees -- An article and photo caption in Thursday's Section A about hurricane evacuees returning to New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward described Mayola Osirio as 74. Osirio is 72.

"It is important for people to see their home," Mayor C. Ray Nagin said, "and move forward with the process of building a new future."

That idea did not sit well with 74-year-old Mayola Osirio, who came home to 823 Charbonnet St. after weeks of refuge with friends in Texas and northern Mississippi.

"Oh Lord, oh Lord," said Osirio, a retired city parking-enforcement dispatcher, looking at the ruins of her beige clapboard house. "I don't see nowhere of starting all over again."

It took 40 minutes just to get in the front door. Osirio's friend Chester Heidelberg, a 76-year-old retired molasses plant worker, sprayed WD-40 lubricant into the lock and fiddled patiently with the key.

As he did so, Osirio and her son Michael Littleton, 49, a legal assistant, walked around outside, sizing up the damage.

Littleton had driven his mother out of the area Aug. 28, the day before Katrina struck. Her car, a gold Toyota, was a total loss.

Many houses in the area bore gashes where rescue crews cut through attics to look for trapped residents. Police said one young man who returned for mementos from his home Wednesday discovered the body of his grandmother -- Louisiana's 1,022nd storm fatality.

In Osirio's yard, trees were split and down, bushes turned brown by brackish floodwater.

A refrigerator had been carried by the swirling waters into her side yard. "That's not my refrigerator," she said. "Now, whose could that be?"

Heidelberg shouted that he had the front door open. Littleton had already managed to climb in through a back window.

"Oh, boy. Oh, no," he called out. "Mama, I don't know if you should come in here."

But she did.

The living room furniture was tossed everywhere, and the stench was awful.

Bizarrely, some items remained in place. A bowl of peppermint LifeSavers sat in a dish on the coffee table. Athletic trophies of her five children, dating to 1965, were undisturbed on a dining room shelf.

Also undamaged were a 1963 photograph of her and the children with her late husband, Raymond, as well as a graduation photo of her and her son Myron Lee, who earned a theology degree from the University of San Francisco in 2000, at age 38.

From several feet away, the dining room table looked strangely beautiful, with splotches of yellow, white, purple, blue and black. A closer inspection revealed fungus and mold.

"Oh, that old table," said Osirio, pausing for a look at the water-damaged furniture. "I loved that old table."

Osirio went to a side window and raised the blinds. Sunlight flooded the room. A ficus was overturned in the corner.

Osirio bought the house 29 years ago. It was a good place to live, even if it was a tough neighborhood, near an industrial waterway with poor drainage.

In the bedroom of the shotgun house, Osirio's bed was jagged and broken.

"Would you look at that?" said Osirio, a bright blue bandanna covering her hair and a dust mask covering her mouth. She pointed at the bed fixture and said, with a mix of wonder and dismay: "Why, the brass has turned blue with all this water."

There wasn't much to salvage there, just a few photo albums from the shelf and a notebook full of church music. Osirio sings soprano in the choir at the nearby New Salem Baptist Church, or used to.

The last room to check was the kitchen, where the stench was the worst. Littleton had already been through there.

"Mama," he said gently, "we're not going in there."

Osirio started to cry.

"For being 72, I'd rather stay right here," she said. "I've been here so long. I've been in New Orleans since birth."

Littleton led his mother gently by the arm back out the dining room, then the living room, then to the porch and into the sunlight.

An insurance adjuster drove up.

"What I'm here to do is assess the wind damage, ma'am, and cut you a check," said the man, who asked that his name not be used. "Your flood policy, now that would be a different policy. That's separate from us."

Osirio, rifling through a sheaf of documents, said she wasn't sure she had a flood policy.

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