NEW ORLEANS — Five Louisiana National Guardsmen spotted a pickup truck parked outside a garbage-strewn, gutted house on desolate Bellaire Drive in the city's Lakeview neighborhood one recent morning.
In the back of the truck was a pile of copper pipes and other scrap metal -- valuable booty in this post-Hurricane Katrina world, where such raw materials fetch a profit.
Sgt. Milton Ramirez questioned the seven Spanish-speaking workers at the house about their activities there and requested the name and phone number of the property owner.
The owner "said they are good guys, and if they find anything that is useful to them, they can take it," Ramirez said of the workers. "They are legitimately here to gut the home and salvage what they can."
That's a relief for Ramirez and his fellow Air National Guardsmen, who are part of a task force of about 300 guardsmen and 60 state police that fans out over New Orleans each day and night, to patrol sparsely populated and deserted areas of the city where looting has flared.
Items being stolen include copper pipes and power lines, generators, catalytic converters from cars, historical architectural decorations, building material, pressure washers and other tools.
"The only way you are going to control that is to saturate the area" with law enforcers, said task force commander Col. Steve Dabadie. "I'm sure the criminals have their techniques. We're going to learn them -- and we have ours."
The guardsmen, whose arrival in New Orleans last week followed the shooting deaths of five teenagers and a recent increase in violent crimes, patrol the largely empty neighborhoods on Humvees and on foot. A helicopter with a spotlight and infrared device, and a canine unit are available for use by the National Guard, Dabadie said.
They carry pistols and standard-issue shotguns and are authorized to use force, but when they come across suspected criminal activity, they call in the New Orleans police.
"First and foremost, we are here in support of the New Orleans Police Department," Dabadie said.
Critics of the troop deployment had charged that with the guardsmen's arrival, New Orleans was becoming a police state.
"That's not it at all," said Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, state public affairs officer for the Louisiana National Guard. "The city is not under siege. The city is trying to recover. We are assisting them. It's not armed conflict here."
"The city is not under martial law," added Dabadie, the task force commander. "A lot of what we are doing when we are going through the neighborhoods is community policing -- getting out and talking to the people," he said.
The Guards' beats include three districts that cover eastern New Orleans, parts of the Lakeview and Gentilly neighborhoods, and the flood-ravaged Lower 9th Ward.
New Orleans Police Department Supt. Warren Riley said the presence of the guardsmen and military police allowed the department to reassign about 75 officers to crime hot spots.
He said police arrested 34 suspected felons over last weekend, nearly triple the usual number.
Back on Bellaire Drive, Ramirez advised the workers against hauling copper so openly in their truck, lest they be stopped again by other National Guardsmen.
Contractors, some of whom have been accused of scamming their customers, are high on the list of potential crime suspects that the guardsmen are monitoring, said Maj. Mike Traylor, commander of the Air National Guard unit that watches over an area of 40 square miles that encompasses Lakeview.
A few blocks down on Bellaire, Senior Airman Jamahl McMillon and Airman 1st Class Jonas Johnnie are out on foot patrol. They stopped to chat with Patricia Arnold outside the gutted house that she used to rent out to others but is now planning to make her home, because Katrina completely destroyed her residence in the suburb of Slidell.
Only two families have returned to Arnold's block. "I'm concerned about security. Things aren't back to normal, and they won't be for a long time. Having the National Guard help out is really a blessing," she said.
The two guardsmen, who both had been deployed to New Orleans immediately after Katrina, stood and listened for almost an hour as Arnold told them about the eight properties her family lost to Katrina and the struggle they are enduring as they try to recover.
McMillon told Arnold that New Orleans was his home, and that he also had relatives who suffered great loss due to Katrina.
"It makes them feel better when they see somebody else has been through it," McMillon said. "It's that sense that 'I'm not in this by myself.' "
Much of the storm debris has been cleared from the sidewalks of Bellaire Drive and other parts of Lakeview that borders the 17th Street Canal levee. A breach after Katrina sent up to 8 feet of water gushing through this neighborhood.