A return to the Big Easy begins
City allows temporary reentry, but some stay on unofficially.
NEW ORLEANS — Nita Hemeter drove back to New Orleans after vacationing in Italy during the hurricane. At each checkpoint, she told officers that she needed to rescue her two dogs and four cats that were left behind. But once she got home and found them safe, she realized that the water had receded entirely in her neighborhood and she could do more good inside the city than out.
So she spends her days alternating between cleaning up her mildewing west side home and "breaking into houses" to leave food and water for pets left behind.
Although New Orleans is still under a mandatory evacuation, a growing number are defying orders and returning with nothing more than their driver's licenses and a desperate story. Most are being let back in, though they're told to get what they need and get out.
Whom to let in and whom to keep out is adding to the tension between residents left in limbo and government officials trying to clean up and restore order to a city that has essentially become a military zone.
There are signs of return to normalcy. The city's airport reopened for cargo traffic Sunday and limited passenger service is planned to begin Tuesday. Officially, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) is set to issue temporary weeklong badges to residents with valid reasons for returning.
Unofficially, those manning checkpoints have been letting many residents through with simply a wave and a "good luck."
Steve Barrera says he simply showed his driver's license and he was waved through - no explanation necessary.
He is cutting up downed trees with a chain saw in front of his house and plans to stay as long as he can. His other option is sitting in a Shreveport, La., shelter. "At least this way, I can help repair some of this damage," he says. "It's going to be a long time before the city does anything."
With the vast majority of New Orleanians cleared out, there is plenty of food and water to go around, say those who are staying. While law enforcement doesn't want them there, they routinely come by to check on them and leave supplies.
Others are simply coming to get what they need and getting out. While no amount of news reporting has prepared them for what they are seeing, many believe much of the official information being disseminated - such as health risks, dangerous conditions, and flat tires - is simply a way to scare them into not coming back.
"There are no health risks in this area," says Caroline Barton, a doctor who used her work badge to get in and check on her west side home. "They should let everyone south of St. Charles Street come back in."
Privately, many residents admit that such a policy could spark even more complaints about racism, since most of what is dry is populated by whites, while much of the black east side is still underwater.
At a checkpoint on River Road, Heath Martin with the Springboro, Ohio, police is waving vehicles through. He estimates that a third of those he is letting through are residents with driver's licenses to prove it. Permission to allow them in has come from the NOPD, he says, with the stipulation that they get what they need and come right back out.
But the official word from the city is that those trying to return are to be turned back. "There is still a mandatory evacuation in the city of New Orleans," says Capt. Martin Defillo with the NOPD. "We won't physically force anyone out of their homes, but anyone who stays is in violation of that order. And those trying to return are not being allowed back in."
Resident Kevin Schoenberger understands the city's position. But "keeping people from their homes and businesses is really a hardship," he says. After talking his way in, he is spending the day cleaning out his refrigerator, gathering a few clothes, and packing up the SUV he left behind.
While law enforcement officers patrolling the neighborhood routinely warn Ms. Hemeter of the dangers of staying, she says she has never felt safer in her adopted home of New Orleans.
In fact, with her red curls poking out from under a safari hat, she has begun to make new friends with the few who are left. Fred Robertson, for example, has offered her a place to sleep so she's not alone at night. His house is several blocks away and she simply pedals her bike there, dropping dog food along the way.
"I've been telling everyone I know to come back. It's not that bad," she says, filling an overturned trash can lid with fresh water for neighborhood pets. "It's sorta like camping out."