A City Built on a Swamp, New Orleans Begins Bailout

IN some ways, New Orleans is not a city at all, but the world's most hospitable swamp. Barely afloat, it is the only American city below sea level. Without its mighty pumps, 25-foot levees, and spillover basins, the muddy waters of the Mississippi River would reclaim it every spring.

But even all this manmade protection couldn't defend against this week's headstrong storms.

Catching the back end of a tempest that dumped grapefruit-sized hail on Texas, New Orleans got 19 inches of rain in 24 hours -- almost four times the average for the entire month of May.

Driven by 50-mile-per-hour winds, the storm left the city's sidewalks piled with soggy carpets and tree limbs. Five people drowned.

''A lot of rain has fallen on our city,'' Mayor Marc Morial said in an understated radio adress. ''This could be the worst storm we've had in 30 years.''

Storms continue to dump water on the region, with additional 15 inches of rain soaking some areas. Five to 10 feet of water stands in some streets and along the north shore of Lake Ponchatrain.

Mayor Morial, along with Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, has declared 9 parishes disaster areas.

While the city's famous French Quarter, which sits on the area's highest point, was not damaged, suburbs that have never before seen flood waters got walloped.

But few New Orleanians are strangers to storms. Immediately after the rains ended, teams of neighbors, armed with rakes and shovels, headed for the storm drains to begin clearing debris. In a city where flat-bottom bayou boats, or ''pirogues'' are as common as cars, most families had some means of ferrying themselves, and their salvageable possessions, to safety.

There are numerous heroes: the truck driver who drove his rig into 15 feet of water to save two motorists stranded on a highway overpass; the owner of a 4-wheel-drive truck who rescued a pregnant woman from thigh-deep water minutes before she gave birth to a baby girl, and the many firefighters and police who kept looters at bay and pedestrians clear from downed power lines.

Everywhere this week, shopowners went wordlessly about their clean-up efforts with well-worn mops, bailing buckets, squeegees, and wet vacuums.

On Saint Charles Avenue, where the storm snapped 100-year-old live oak trees in half and drove flood waters to three or four feet, people crouched over cars with cans and cups, bailing out the standing water that seeped in through doors and convertible tops.

UPTOWN homeowner Diana McCammon, whose house filled with two feet of water, showed reporters how the flood had lifted all of her new white leather furniture and rearranged it in a heap in a corner of her living room. ''Everything I own,'' she says, ''was floating last night.''

At the New Orleans Lakefront Airport, the storm winds flipped 30 small planes over onto their wings.

In Slidell, northeast of New Orleans, Ron Williams's month-old motor home was tipped over on its side. ''I only used it once,'' Mr. Williams said, spinning one of the tires with his hand. ''This is a real disappointment.''

But this is, after all, New Orleans: a city of parades, carnivals, and conventioneers that has spread beyond the original French settlement into lower-lying areas on all sides of the river.

For 300 years, it has been a city sinking and mildewing amid the mire -- a place where the only constants are the names of families who have lived here for generations.

''The rains will come and go,'' says Leroy Banks, a lifelong resident, as he aired out his soggy Oldsmobile Tuesday afternoon. ''I ain't going nowhere.''

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