On path to recovery, Big Easy suburbs lead the way

Officials urge residents to rebuild quickly as a way to encourage New Orleans.

Officials in the communities that surround battered New Orleans are pressing their residents to return and rebuild their homes and businesses - not just for themselves or their communities, but for their Big Easy neighbors, as well.

The idea is that these satellite towns can aid recovery efforts of harder-hit areas by providing hot meals, places to sleep, and ready supplies. Jefferson Parish, for instance, is hoping to be up and fully running by Oct. 1.

That may be a bit ambitious, since many of these cities and towns have also been devastated economically. But there is no shortage of enthusiasm and heart.

Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris has called his community south of New Orleans "the first beachhead of support."

"We see Gretna as a jumping-off point for recovery efforts elsewhere," he says from his desk at city hall. "But first we have to get ourselves up and running."

The town of 17,000 suffered mainly wind damage and, two weeks later, has 90 percent of its power restored. Water and sewer services are back, as well.

Mayor Harris estimates that only a handful of businesses have reopened. He urges the rest to come back quickly.

Gretna, he says, had to go it alone for the most part ("We are still waiting for FEMA"), and he's proud of his police department for keeping the community safe both during and after the hurricane.

In fact, 1,600 people trapped inside the New Orleans' Convention Center and Superdome began walking across the Interstate 90 bridge that connects the Crescent City with Gretna in the days after the hurricane.

They were met by Gretna police officers and taken in borrowed buses to west New Orleans to await federal aid. That prevented substantial looting, and officers had the foresight to remove weapons from sporting-good stores and pawn shops.

But now, Harris says, he is wading through stacks of e-mails from people angry at Gretna for not doing more for the evacuees. "We did what we had to do. We defended our borders."

Thanks for that approach are painted on plywood across the city. Other signs list which businesses are open, and their hours.

At Temento's tackle shop in neighboring Westwego, a sign on the front door says, "We will open 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. until further notice."

Customers seek out chain-saw oil, rope, tarps, and roofing nails. "But many regulars are coming in here and just hanging out," says Frank Materne, the store's manager. "They all say they are so glad we've opened up."

The day after hurricane Katrina hit, Westwego's most popular pizza joint, Mo's Pizza, began baking pies for its local police and firefighters, using generator power. It soon was donating hundreds of pizzas to agencies from across the country that were converging on New Orleans.

"We heard that the guys were down and dragging," says manager Lance Reine, wiping his hands on his flour-stained apron. "They just needed a place to sit in air conditioning and eat some hot food."

Mo's Pizza began serving the public this week, but hundreds of pies are still being shuttled to aid workers.

"We are just trying to do our part to help people get into their own homes," says Mr. Reine.

Mark Kuehne, who has already repaired his house, says he appreciates the effort other businesses are making. "It makes you feel like things are getting back to at least some kind of normal," he says, waiting for his order.

But man does not live by supreme pizza alone. And sales are popping at Bent's Ren- dez Vous, an RV showroom in Metairie. Of the 50 RVs in stock before the hurricane, only five remain, says sales associate Lance Peterkin. Another 210 are on order.

The shop has been open for about a week now, rushing to do so because "people need roofs over their heads right now," says Mr. Peterkin. Because it's one of the few businesses open in this western suburb of New Orleans, he says, it's hard to find someplace to eat lunch while working. "I ate two pretzels for lunch."

Not every business reopens to give encouragement to New Orleans. A little further west in Kenner, Joe Starnes says he opened for purely financial reasons.

He was at work a week after Katrina tore through town, cleaning up and repairing damage to his roof. The professional printer says the storm caused him to reconsider the viability of his business.

He's now considering becoming a claims adjuster instead.

Claude's Barbershop is doing a brisk business after just opening a day earlier - especially with all the buzz-cut law-enforcement officers in the area.

"The mayor of Kenner said he wanted businesses to start opening so we could get our economy going again," says storeowner Claude Todaro, a comb in his pocket. "I want to support the recovery efforts any way I can."

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