Little is left of the New Orleans couple knew

Nikkia and Jaron Barnes, are shown Thursday in the living room of their Gainesville apartment. The Barnes' relocated to Gainesville from New Orleans after fleeing Hurricane Katrina.

BRIANA BROUGH/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 10:39 p.m.
Some of the photos look like they could have been shot in Hiroshima in late August 1945.
But they were taken just last week in New Orleans by Jaron and Nikkia Barnes in their neighborhood in the ghostly ruins of an area named the Ninth Ward. They had fled New Orleans on Aug. 28, the day before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, breaching levees in New Orleans and causing catastrophic flooding across the city.
The couple came to Gainesville, where Nikkia Barnes grew up and still has family. The day after Christmas they drove back to New Orleans, their first visit to Jaron Barnes' hometown since becoming refugees four months earlier.
"As we drove into the city we were in tears," said Jaron Barnes, 29, who taught special-education classes in a New Orleans elementary school and also did contract work in information technology, but hasn't yet found work in Gainesville.
"It really looks like a war-torn village as opposed to the city I knew," he said. "Especially at night. The only lights you saw as far as you looked were the headlights of other vehicles."
In daytime, he said, the city is shrouded in a brown haze that he never saw while he lived there. They wore latex gloves whenever they sifted through their debris searching for anything that could be salvaged, yet he still came home with a rash on his lip.
His wife, 31, a unit clerk in the cardiac intensive-care unit at Shands at the University of Florida, said they had seen the television images of New Orleans.
"But it doesn't really hit home until you see it for yourself," she said. "It was heartbreaking to see your neighborhood in that condition."
During their nearly weeklong visit, they took dozens of photos of the devastation.
There are areas where for many square blocks there is nothing taller than waist-high piles of rubble. On the street that runs alongside the Industrial Canal - about half a mile from the Barnes' flooded townhouse apartment - a hulking barge as long as a city block remains grounded on the spot where it landed after washing over the levee.
One intersection is blocked by three almost-intact houses that flowed there in floodwaters. The nearly undamaged roof of a house sits on a grassy lot, looking like a black hat tossed onto a green chair; the photo gives no clue as to the fate of the rest of the house.
"I would say there are at least five or six streets where every house is flattened," Jaron Barnes said. "My grandmother's house had 4 feet of water on the second floor, and now the house is leaning."
He said the bank where he and his wife had a safe-deposit box was destroyed, and they lost such documents as birth certificates, the deed to his grandmother's house, his military records and some keepsakes.
"My world really came to an end," Barnes said. "I can't explain how horrible it was, to see the buildings you used to pass by all your life just gone. There is nothing of my childhood there anymore. Our family-owned grocery store was destroyed. Two churches, strong, long-standing buildings, destroyed."
He served as an assistant pastor at one of the churches.
"So many things that were family to us are no longer there," Nikkia Barnes said. "It's really difficult to take all that in at one time."
Their apartment has a water mark 8 feet high on the first floor. But the second floor looks almost as it did when they left.
Barnes said the apartment probably could be rebuilt. But he said a life in New Orleans, at least for him and his wife, cannot be. "At this point I won't go back," he said. "There is nothing to go back to. Even my childhood memories.
"Basically, I have to try to make it here. We don't have anyplace else to go."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 352-374-5042 or arndorb@

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