Storm refugees face slow return

4 in 5 residents of New Orleans fled hurricane Katrina. Now, the trip home is delayed.

It's the tailgate party amid turmoil: Teens munch potato chips, dads listen to radios, kids chase each other, while mothers chat nearby. This parking lot, an hour west of New Orleans, has become a way station for hurricane refugees with nowhere else to go.

After fleeing hours or days before hurricane Katrina hit early Monday, hundreds of thousands of people from Louisiana to Alabama are now camped out in hotels, shelters, and along roadsides, waiting to go home. No one, not even authorities, knows when that will be. Some evacuees have been told that the delay could be days or weeks.

Thus, the region's largely successful evacuation may be marred by a difficult, drawn out return for many.

After leaving New Orleans on Sunday afternoon, Natashia Cooper and her family wound up spending the night at Exit 155 off Interstate 10. "That's all I know," she says. "I don't know where we were."

They decided that sleeping in a parking lot closer to home was better than one further from home, so now they are at Exit 180. "There was a Waffle House at Exit 162 that was cooking, but that was the last time we ate hot food," says Ms. Cooper.

She and her family live in central New Orleans - hit hard by the storm - so they are anxious to get home. "It was the first time we ever ran, because they were scaring us," she says. "But to tell you the truth, we are kind of regretting having left. Now we can't get home, and it might be days before we do."

In eastern Louisiana, far more people evacuated than in recent memory - some 80 percent of the 485,000 residents in New Orleans alone, according to Mayor Ray Nagin. Because they had so many near misses, many residents had been content to ride out previous hurricanes. But not this time, they say.

"They said it was going to be a Category 5, and that was all I needed to hear," says Audrey Collins, who is trying to get back to her home on Lake Pontchartrain.

Standing nearby, Claude Miller says he always packs it up when told a hurricane is approaching. He was 10 when hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in 1965, and he and his family had to be rescued off their roof in a military amphibious vehicle.

"You don't forget something like that," he says, topping his tank off at the only gas station for miles that is open and running on generator power. He says he and his family made a hotel reservation in Lafayette Thursday night when hurricane Katrina began threatening and decided to chance coming home Monday without official word.

He regrets that decision now because they have no place to sleep and no idea when they will be allowed back home.

The underside of his pickup truck is splattered with mud from his ride along the levee in an attempt to get home, before finally being turned back by state troopers. That same truck will be his family's bed - and the gas station, their hotel.

Michael Castrillo says he never evacuates before hurricanes: "I'm not a leaver. But this time I said, 'It's gonna hit.' "

But he and his friends couldn't leave New Orleans before Saturday night because it was the last night of a play they were all in.

"Somebody said, 'The French Quarter could be under water the next day,' so we all went out [to celebrate] one last time," he recalls. "At 2 a.m., they turned on all the lights and said, 'You're through. Get out of town.' And I said, 'You're kicking us off Bourbon Street?' That's when I knew it must be serious."

So he and two friends left Sunday afternoon at the last possible moment and found Interstate 10 a parking lot. They kept stopping along the way looking for hotels, but finding nothing, they ended up in a parking lot in Lake Charles, La., some 200 miles away. Mr. Castrillo heard that some 3,000 people wound up sleeping in parking lots around town.

"The whole place was filled with New Orleanians, and we were all talking and laughing. We got very little sleep," he says. "The whole experience has been an adventure. We've met so many cool people, and we all have this feeling of commonality."

He's eager to get home, however, and is worried about his roof. He did remember to take along his insurance, mortgage, and tax documents as well as a few personal photos.

Paul Damron brought little other than his father, stepmother, dog, and cat. On Sunday night, they got the last room at a Red Roof Inn in Lafayette, La. The problem was, it was only for one night and they had to check out Monday. With no place to stay, they headed back to Kenner, just west of New Orleans, before hitting the roadblock at Sorrento.

So they all settled in for a long wait at the gas station.

Pulled up next to them was Jodie Broggi, her two daughters, and her sister-in-law, who had left to stay with friends in Baton Rouge, La. But the storm had knocked out power there, too. So they were trying to get back to Thibodaux, La., where the women's husbands had stayed behind.

One incentive: Ms. Broggi's husband has a generator.

"I'm trying to get us to some air conditioning," she says. "But if we can't get through, we're going to have to turn around and go back to Baton Rouge."

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