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Returning Residents Find a Nightmare in the 9th Ward

In the impoverished New Orleans district, they find water and little worth saving.

September 03, 2005|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Tim King paddled his metal skiff to the doorstep of his house and pushed open his front door for the first time since he had fled three days earlier.

He shoved aside a black, moldy sofa and lumbered through the sludge-coated living room.

A boat is the only way to get around in much of the city's 9th Ward, one of New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods -- and among the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina.

A friend had loaned King his fishing rig and dropped him on the eastern side of the Industrial Canal Bridge, where St. Claude Avenue descends into thick, black water and the stench of sewage-tainted air fills your nostrils.

In his back pocket, King carried a little insurance.

"I ain't going nowhere without this pistol, trust me," said King, a 43-year-old truck driver.

It was one of the few things he was able to grab on Tuesday night, when a rescue crew pulled him out of his attic with his pit bull, Scully.

King had stayed as long as he could. As the puddles in his living room grew into a muddy pool, the street became a raging river. The water almost reached the ceiling.

His girlfriend had gone the night before in another rescue boat, but those rescuers had refused to take the dog, so King refused to go.

Now he was returning to a nightmare.

The water had receded to his front stoop, but the storm had rearranged his furniture. The stereo cabinet and television were toppled, and VHS tapes protruded from the slime.

King went for his three bass guitars in the kitchen. Water spilled out when he opened the first case.

The refrigerator lay on its side and insulation streamed down from the ceiling.

King filled two garbage bags with muck-covered clothes he was hoping to wash and loaded them into the boat, along with the guitars, and took another look at the slime-coated Harley-Davidson he had been overhauling in the back room.

He struggled to shut the front door.

It didn't matter. There was little here worth stealing. And besides, the streets on this side of the bridge were mostly deserted.

One block away, Rubin Etienne, 57, stood at the bow of another boat, poling his way down the street here in this eastern portion of the city.

He had lived all week on the tiny boat, borrowed from a neighbor who had heeded the early storm warnings and fled.

Etienne stayed, first in his one-story house, then in the boat as the waters rose. As the winds peaked, he crawled from the boat into his attic. When it was over, he plied the streets for any signs of life.

He said he saw little but could hear people "hollering for help."

Now the only sound was the ripple of water. Etienne was taking Charles Lewis, 25, into the flood zone. The names of Lewis' three young children were tattooed on his arms and chest, and he wanted to make sure they and their mother had gotten out.

The two men propelled themselves past floating garbage, power lines dangling into the water and cars flooded to the headrests.

The house was boarded up, and when he called his family's names, he said, there was no response.

Strangers until Friday afternoon, Lewis and Etienne shared a cigarette.

Etienne said he would have to rewrite a letter he had started composing to his Vietnam buddies before the storm hit. The first letter was soaked. And now he had a story to tell.

He had ferried about a half-dozen people to the bridge.

Civilization began on the other side. But it was grim.

Many people evacuated from the hardest-hit areas and wound up several blocks west at the Charles Drew Elementary School.

One evacuee died there Tuesday afternoon, possibly of a heart attack. Nobody knows for sure.

At least 100 people remain there.

They sleep on desks, under signs displaying the discipline policy, the morning routine and vocabulary words.

They cook on a butane stove outside the library, slowly depleting the cafeteria supplies of thawing hamburgers and chicken. Basketball hoops poke up through the water out back.

Drying shoes line the windowsills.

Many of the newly homeless sit on the front step, watching joy riders dodge fallen trees.

Some rooms have light bulbs connected to car batteries.

Life is better here than at the teeming Superdome.

Still, many have felt neglected, since the authorities have yet to deliver water or supplies.

"They dropped us off and they said they would come back," said Hattie Leslie, 56, who arrived with her daughter and granddaughter. "They never did."

"They took care of the tsunami," she said. "What about us?"

They also didn't come for the body.

Shawn Smith, a 33-year-old refugee at the school, helped carry the dead man down to a basement classroom. There the body lies, arched on his back over a metal television cart.

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