As water ebbs, tallies emerge

Spirit of recovery takes hold in New Orleans, even though 40 percent is still under water.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The water, in much of this city, is gone.

As it's pumped into Lake Pontchartrain, it leaves mud, debris, devastated homes and businesses, kernels of hope and optimism, environmental-hazard concerns, and a monumental cleanup task.

It's been three weeks since hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans - and the full scale of the storm's impact is still emerging. In a few cases - such as fatalities - the worst didn't come to pass. While search teams are continuing their grim work, notably in Plaquemines Parish, south of the city, the death toll of 579 for Louisiana is far lower than the thousands predicted a week ago.

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But as Mayor Ray Nagin pushed ahead over the weekend with a repopulation plan for drier neighborhoods, the question of whether New Orleans has moved past the emergency-response phase and into recovery and rebuilding is open to debate.

"There are a lot more people on the ground," says Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Boulder in Colorado and a critic of how the Katrina emergency has been managed thus far. "Boots on the ground, yes. Effectiveness of what's going on? We're not sure. New Orleans is still deeply in a state of emergency. I don't think we're anywhere near in a state of recovery."

Indeed, a return to "normal" anytime soon is hard to fathom. At least 40 percent of New Orleans is under water, its residents are scattered, 168,000 homes are destroyed, and much of the city is without electricity or drinkable water.

That doesn't mean people aren't trying. Despite warnings from the federal government's disaster-response chief that the city is uninhabitable, business owners were allowed back into the French Quarter, Uptown, and Algiers over the weekend. Residents can return in stages, starting Monday with Algiers - the only area where all services have resumed. Central New Orleans is humming, as cleanup crews in gas masks join relief workers and National Guard teams.

But a little farther east or north, the picture changes. Whole neighborhoods may need to be razed in heavily flooded or polluted areas, such as the Ninth Ward. In hard-hit St. Bernard Parish, just to the east of New Orleans, some homes are now under both floodwater and oil, due to a spill at the Murphy Oil Refinery. Residents allowed in this weekend to see if they could salvage anything found waterlogged, mold-filled homes. Some wore hazmat suits as they sifted through belongings.

Presumably, such areas will qualify to be part of the Gulf Opportunity Zone, one of President Bush's new proposals to give incentives to rebuild the region. The plan calls for special tax breaks for businesses that set up there, and vouchers to families to help them resettle their children in public or private schools. The president has also proposed an "urban homestead" plan, in which surplus federal property would be turned over to displaced families who pledged to build or renovate homes on the land.

In New Orleans itself, the outlook for recovery can be both gloomy or bright, depending on where you stand. In the party-happy French Quarter, with its graceful architecture and less graceful all-night entertainment, the mood was almost ebullient among some residents and business owners. "Soon as we get electricity, the party will begin," declared Finis Shelnutt as he decorated his building with Mardi Gras beads, masks, and green-and-purple tin foil. "We'll have a great Halloween."

Even without power, Mr. Shelnutt - whose building houses Alex Patout's Louisiana Restaurant and who never left the city - welcomed back his neighbors with an impromptu block party, complete with a vat of red beans and rice. It was the most festive gathering for miles, and in streets lined with decomposing trash, the aroma of his stew was a small reminder of better days.

A couple of blocks away at Ralph and Kacoo's Seafood Restaurant, workers in gas masks hauled out stinking dumpsters of rotting food. It's a mess inside, says owner Angel Veidia, but there's little damage that a heavy cleaning can't fix. "Three more weeks, we try to open," he says.

Others are ready now. Taylor Lyon and his brother returned from Nashville on Saturday to find their art gallery relatively untouched. "We're open tomorrow," says Mr. Lyon, who isn't even waiting for electricity. "There's a history of art in the French Quarter, and we want to be part of keeping that history going." He, like many in this tourist section, has little doubt about future. "New Orleans is very resilient. It's been through some pretty terrible stuff, but it always comes back."

The French Quarter, though it suffered from looters and wind damage, saw little flooding. People from more devastated neighborhoods can't even begin to think about Halloween or Mardi Gras. The Ninth Ward, now largely drained, is a ghost town of ruined homes - roofs caved in, sides of buildings blown off, water lines visible high up the sides.

St. Bernard Parish, a working-class area just east of New Orleans, also let in some residents this weekend, but only to take stock of their losses. The parish is a surreal landscape of odd sights: parking lots under six inches of dried mud, a boat overturned on a pickup, a railroad-crossing sign in a backyard, junk that includes bleachers and boats, toys and trucks.

Louis Babylon, who's lived in the same house with his wife for 51 years, says they're not coming back. "I won't go through another one," he says, trying to save rusting tools he's had for decades.

Water went past the roof of their neat, white bungalow, and Joan Babylon and her daughter give the tour in disbelief, warning about the huge bumps in the buckled floors. They found the dryer in a bedroom, mud-soaked towels from the bathroom are in the living room.

Still, there are bright spots: The photo albums they left in garbage bags are dry, and Mrs. Babylon found the stack of silver dollars that were a silver anniversary gift. Most important, they had flood insurance.

"You cry first, and then you say, 'What can I do?' " says Ms. Lehman, managing a laugh as she wades through the sludge.

Over at a relief center, Red Cross and FEMA officials are giving out tetanus shots and bottled water. Despite the grim picture, Ernesto Archuleta, an official with a disaster medical assistance team from Tucson, Ariz., sees signs of hope.

"We could barely get in anywhere when we arrived" two weeks ago, he says. "We've come into a disaster area, but we can see and feel that we're in a recovery phase. It's great to be a part of that."

Katrina scorecard

Number of ...

... displaced people: an estimated 1 million

... Katrina-related deaths: 816

... people rescued: at least 48,500

... dollars Congress has allocated for aid/response: 62.3 billion

... households that have received federal funds: 509,000, getting $1.1 billion as of Sept. 15

... children dislodged from school: at least 372,000

... customers in Louisiana and Mississippi without electricity: 307,104 as of Sept. 16, compared with 2.7 million at worst

... gallons being drained from New Orleans per day: 8 billion

... evacuees in Houston's Astrodome: 0 as of Sept. 16, compared with 27,000 at height

... Red Cross shelters still housing evacuees: 250, housing at least 49,000, compared with 902 shelters open since Katrina made landfall (providing a total of 2.2 million overnight stays)

... active-duty US military dedicated to Katrina response: 18,276, with an additional 50,000 reserves and National Guard troops

Percentage of ...

... New Orleans still flooded: 40 to 50, compared with 80 percent at worst

... natural-gas production shut down in Gulf Coast: 33.8, compared with 88 percent on Aug. 30

... oil production shut down in Gulf Coast: 56.1 percent, compared with 95.2 percent on Aug. 30

Sources: Department of Energy, Department of Education, Department of Homeland Security, American Forces Information Service, American Red Cross, wire services

Alexandra Marks contributed to this report.

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