For 13 evacuees, a hard trip down memory lane

Litania and Bobbie Banks haven't seen their gray frame house since the levees broke Aug. 31, flooding the Lower Ninth Ward. Dorothy Cage's son had warned her there was nothing worth saving in her once-well-kept home. As for Joseph Melton, he's simply curious, "wanting to see" the brick-faced house where he once lived.

These four and nine others are here to board a bus - call it the "closure bus" - that will wind through the Lower Ninth, the only way they and 3,600 previous riders have been able to gain access to their old neighborhood. The streets and structures, now mounds of rubble, are deemed too hazardous for people to roam on their own.

Most of today's evacuees come with equipment in hand: a cellphone, to describe the ride to relatives or friends in real time, and a camera or camcorder to capture the scene, probably their last mementos of the places where they raised children, barbecued chicken, or sang in a church choir. Add to those items a particle mask, courtesy of FEMA, to protect them from a landscape now coated in dust, mold, and asbestos.

The ground rules

On board the Gray Line mini-bus, retired Marine Col. Jerry Sneed gives a little pre-tour talk. The bus will make a loop around the neighborhood, he tells them. Then it will weave its way through the streets. He asks residents to shout out when they see their house, so the driver will stop.

"We'll try to get you very close," promises the ramrod-straight ex-marine. But he also tries to prepare them for what lies ahead: "That big-screen TV, the family pictures, they are all gone. The Lower Ninth Ward does not exist anymore."

No one will be allowed off the bus to look in their homes because many houses are collapsing from rot, states Colonel Sneed. Instead, the driver will stop at one brick house, deemed safe enough, and everyone can go inside to see what the flood has done.

Why can't they at least see if anything can be salvaged, someone asks. Maybe a favorite china cup or teddy bear that can be scrubbed clean.

"Two days ago we found six more bodies," comes the grave answer, "and we have no way of knowing the structural soundness of your homes."

As the bus swings past National Guard troops and slows to a crawl, Sneed's words take form in wood and steel. Houses that floated off their foundations landed atop other houses, or cars.

"Look at that, look at that," says one former resident, pointing to a house tilted on its side.

Bobbie Banks, though, is not daunted. "I want to go back. Alabama is not for me," she says after just a few minutes' ride. "Just let us go back and start cleaning up."

But that's not about to happen. The bus stops next to a house that has collapsed.

"It just happened," says the bus driver. "It wasn't like this on my last trip."

Travelers in a strange land

The neighborhood feels strange to these fellow travelers, though many lived in the Lower Ninth for years. The usual landmarks are gone, or are now piles of flotsam, and it's disorienting. "Where are we?" is a common question.

Finding his bearings, Isaac Bolden asks the driver to stop at the corner where he'd lived. Stepping off the bus, the young man gawks, then pans his camcorder from left to right. All that's left of his house is a concrete slab and a few cinder blocks. Back on the bus, he struggles to hold back the sobs.

The bus pulls up to the designated brick house, and everyone walks across a layer of dried, cracked mud to get a look inside. New Orleans hasn't seen much rain since Katrina, and dehydrated silt coats everything. On automobiles, it's sometimes rooftop-high.

At the house, a black frame screen opens to the street while a white front door opens into the living room. The highest watermark is six inches from the top of the door.

The colonel had warned everyone to expect the unexpected: The refrigerator ended up in the bathroom of another house, he said. The "show house," too, contains a random jumble of household furnishings, covered in black slime.

When the bus comes to what's left of the Bankses' home, it backs down the cross street so that the couple can see what remains. Mr. Banks just shakes his head, especially when he sees the house rests on top of one of his cars. Piles of plywood and two-by-fours are scattered over three other vehicles.

The only thing that kept the house from floating further up the street is a telephone pole. It now stands at the front door. A tire is on the roof.

"I want to start cleaning and building back up," Mrs. Banks says again, her silver head bobbing up and down.

In about an hour, everyone has seen what's left of their homes - not to mention cars canted at strange angles, a tricycle stuck six feet up on a fence, a perfectly fine gate to a nonexistent house, and a church facade that is missing the church itself.

Reflections on a difficult day

Full of chatter early on, the riders are quiet as the bus exits the Lower Ninth.

Dorothy Cage, now living in Mississippi, says the neighborhood tour helped her come to peace about the loss. "I just had to see for myself," she says.

Mrs. Banks says the trip helped her a lot, although she felt no closure until the Social Security Administration located two uncles, now in San Antonio, on the day before Thanksgiving.

"Now, we're just trying to get to the next level," she says - which for her is getting a trailer so she can move closer to New Orleans.

For Joseph Melton, seeing his house brought back memories - not all good.

"I thought I could get over losing the house, but I couldn't," he says as he gets into his car and drives off.

-Some 3,600 residents of the Lower Ninth Ward have taken a mini-bus tour, like the one described here, through their hurricane-ravaged New Orleans neighborhood. The tours were discontinued Dec. 1, when people were finally allowed to drive in themselves. FEMA is now using the buses to take residents of still-restricted St. Bernard Parish to see their homes.

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