New Orleans residents return, some only briefly

Published: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 12:47 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS - The sounds of power saws and wood chippers filled parts of New Orleans on Friday as the French Quarter and other neighborhoods that were spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina were officially reopened to residents, a month after the storm hit.
Along St. Charles Avenue, its famous streetcars still idled, Maury Strong and her husband were elated to return home and find they had electricity.
''I came back to air conditioning and CNN, so I'm happy. The fridge is on, the beer is cold,'' she said. ''I've been sobbing back in California for two or three weeks. I thought it was going to be much worse.''
Despite the misgivings of state and federal authorities, Mayor Ray Nagin threw open the French Quarter and the Uptown section as part of an aggressive plan to get the city back on its feet. Algiers, a neighborhood across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, reopened to residents on Monday.
Altogether, the neighborhoods account for about one-third of New Orleans' half-million inhabitants. Most of the reopened areas have electricity, but only Algiers has drinkable water.
Serious hazards remain because of bacteria-laden floodwaters, a lack of clean water and a sewage system that has not been fully repaired. The stench of garbage piled up in some areas is overpowering, and stretches of the city are pitch-black at night.
Some residents came only to pack and leave.
''We're moving out of this stinking city,'' Billy Tassin snarled as he loaded his daughter's belongings into a truck, a day after finding his home fouled with knee-deep mud. ''They can finishing destroying it and burning it down without us.''
At the Red-Thread dressmaker's shop on Magazine Street, Ilona Toth wept as she began packing up to leave 15 years after opening her business.
''It's just too hard,'' said Toth, a Hungarian immigrant. ''Every year a hurricane is always coming. We always have to evacuate, then clean up. It's too much trouble.''
Some were intent on coming back.
''This is my home. I will never leave New Orleans,'' said Virginia Darmstadter, 75, who has lived in the Uptown section's Garden District for 21 years and left her husband in a Houston nursing home to check their home. The house had no electricity, and had water and mold. The family planned to return to Houston after cleaning up a few things.
''As soon as we get electricity and my husband is strong enough to come back, believe me, I'll be back,'' Darmstadter said. ''I've lived long enough to know that life is a wave; you move up and down. When you are down, you have to muster the wherewithal to face it.''
Along Prytania Street in the Uptown section, people cleared brush and tree limbs from their yards, while repair crews worked on power lines.
''I don't know how it's going to come together,'' he said. ''I don't know if there's ever been a big city evacuated the way we were evacuated. It's all new. I don't know that we can come back that quick.''
The city is 95 percent dry, said Maj. Jeff Kwiecinski of the Army Corps of Engineers. Water was still being pumped out of the devastated Ninth Ward, but Kwiecinski said it would probably be gone by Sunday.
Debris was stacked outside homes for miles, and included moldy mattresses and rows of refrigerators, duct-taped shut and leaking foul-smelling liquids. Burglar alarms sounded in many buildings as the power blinked on, a sharp counterpoint to the wood chippers grinding up fallen limbs.
Katrina's death toll in Louisiana stood at 929 on Friday, the state health department said. Mississippi's toll rose to 221 after a body was found under a collapsed motel.
''I came back to air conditioning and CNN, so I'm happy. The fridge is on, the beer is cold.''

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