YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


On a Tour of Debris, and Despair

Residents of a poor New Orleans area devastated by Katrina are allowed to view their homes, but only from afar. Anger gives way to disbelief.

October 28, 2005|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Residents of the hardest-hit sections of this city's Lower 9th Ward had been barred from their homes since Hurricane Katrina struck two months ago. On Thursday, they were allowed to view their neighborhood -- by bus.

Many of the returnees said they were angry that it had taken so long to gain entry to survey their homes and upset that, even now, they could not go into their residences.

"We should've least been allowed to walk back to the streets ... to go see. Even though we can't live there," said Christopher Weaver, 42, whose family was scattered among relatives in Houston, Chicago and other cities after the storm.

The anger was soon replaced by despair and disbelief as residents peered out of the bus windows and saw plains of debris that once were their homes.

"It's unbelievable," said Ada Burns, 41, a grocery store attendant, as she pointed to shells of buildings she recognized.

"That was a brand, smacking new house," shouted Peggy Rixner, 62, a school custodian, as she gestured to the pile of bricks and shattered glass that remained. "Ooooo, yes indeed. Ain't that something. Lord have mercy."

"And look at that roof in the middle of the street," Rixner's daughter, 40-year-old Phoebe Garfield, chimed in.

Bursts of awkward laughter and the click of disposable cameras accompanied the dialogue.

The "look and leave" bus tours, arranged by the city, took residents to devastated areas not far from a levee that burst after the hurricane struck, sending water crashing through town. Other sections of the Lower 9th Ward had been reopened for visits in previous weeks.

The bus tours were expected to run for several days, the mayor's office said.

"This is your day to get the information you need to help you," said Jerry Sneed, a volunteer with the city's domestic security agency, as residents lined up to register and board the buses. "Don't be afraid to ask questions."

Sneed said that no one would be allowed off the buses.

"There is nothing in those houses that is salvageable," he said. "The water was in there too long. I don't care how beautiful a TV you had. It's too dangerous."

Garfield had wanted to try to find a few photographs, and possibly some belongings she had stored in bins. But as her eyes swept across the sea of debris, reality set in.

A sailboat sat on a front porch, tilted up against the front wall. A pink house partially buried a white pickup. All that was recognizable of H&W Drug Store was the black lettering on the remnants of the building's white facade.

Burns said the devastation was "like a dream."

"It hasn't really hit me to the point where it's reality," she said, adding that she planned to tell her family to "start rebuilding your lives, because there ain't nothing here."

Many of the 20 or so residents who rode the first bus defied orders not to disembark.

"That's it. This ain't my home no more," said Garfield's husband, Richard Garfield, as he struggled to suppress tears. The 41-year-old twirled a small piece of brick in the palm of his hand that he planned to keep as a memento.

"This is what my life has been reduced to," he said. "A piece of rubble."

Some returnees said they were living with friends or relatives in parts of the city where houses had been spared major damage. Others had returned temporarily from newly adopted hometowns in Texas, Mississippi and Illinois.

Most shared the sentiments of Garfield and Burns: There was nothing worth returning to in New Orleans.

Local police in squad cars escorted the buses. Pastors and volunteer counselors accompanied residents to offer advice and solace. National Guard troops patrolled various intersections of the battered neighborhood.

Edward Simmons, pastor of the New Way Christian Center, whose church and two homes were washed away by the storm, said he came on the tour to encourage people not to lose hope. He said he viewed the destruction of much of New Orleans as "a purging for the city."

"This is a new beginning, it's not the end," the pastor said. "The Lord will work things out. We must keep faith in him."

At a town hall meeting this week, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin restated his commitment to rebuild the most devastated parts of the city.

The mayor said that 1,000 of 50,000 buildings inspected in the city so far had been slated for demolition, but other city officials think that as many as 50,000 could ultimately be razed, and a large percentage of those would likely be in the ravaged Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East.

Los Angeles Times Articles