Coming Home to New Orleans
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KWAME HOLMAN: It was last Thursday when Mayor Ray Nagin first said it was time to think about letting the good times roll again in New Orleans.
RAY NAGIN: I envision us building an incredible city so livable and unique with all the New Orleans wonderful things everybody in appreciates that everybody’s going to want to come.
KWAME HOLMAN: But to build it, New Orleanians first will have to come back, and Mayor Nagin’s decision to allow a rolling reopening of the city to residents was questioned pointedly over the weekend by federal officials on the ground. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen is leading those efforts.
VICE ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: And it’s not so much a matter of how you repopulate New Orleans or the desire to do that, it’s when you should do it and when those enabling structures are in place to make sure it is done safely. And it is my responsibility as a primary federal official for this event to work with the mayor to make sure he understands that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today in Washington President Bush echoed Allen’s concerns but sympathized with the mayor.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The mayor — he’s got this dream about having a city up and running and we share that dream. But we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles that we all confront in repopulating New Orleans.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Bush also said the trickle of returning residents could become victims of another storm.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Let me give you a real concern that I think everybody ought to pay attention to and that is this Tropical Storm Rita, which now looks like it will head out into the Gulf and could track Katrina or could it head further to the west. But nevertheless, there is deep concern about this storm causing more flooding in New Orleans.
KWAME HOLMAN: The safety issues are legion; as the city is drained a potentially dangerous sludge remains.
HUGH KAUFMAN, EPA: You have got cancer-causing chemicals from the petrochemical industry that are in the muck and in the water. I think the decision to bring people back into the city without doing an assessment of the — how much toxicity is there, is just reckless and irresponsible.
KWAME HOLMAN: Admiral Allen again registered his objections this morning on ABC.
VICE ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, our position would be that if the public is going to move back into New Orleans, they need to be informed of the risks that they’re incurring. Without potable water and a 911 system the public will not be protected and we would not recommend anybody go back.
RAY NAGIN: Let me just clear some things up as it relates to the recent events with Admiral Allen.
KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon Mayor Ray Nagin addressed the dispute with federal officials over reopening the city.
RAY NAGIN: I understand the federal government was a little excited about the plan. They didn’t feel as though conditions were quite right. But my thought has always been that if we have this many resources in the city working cooperatively, then we can correct just about any situation that was out there.
KWAME HOLMAN: But as Katrina so painfully showed, there is no correcting the weather. So the mayor announced a fresh evacuation of those who’ve just returned or never left because of the new threat from Tropical Storm Rita.
RAY NAGIN: I am hopeful that people have seen the effect of Katrina and they understand the threat of a Category 3 coming right behind Katrina, and that we won’t have the struggles in getting people like we had last time.
JIM LEHRER: Before the mayor’s reversed decision Tom Bearden visited some of the people who had already returned to their former homes or what remains of them.
TOM BEARDEN: Small groups of people began trickling back into the Algiers section of Orleans Parish, across the river from downtown New Orleans. This area was one of the few that didn’t flood, and most houses were relatively undamaged. Brother and sister Marilyn and Leslie Lombard were throwing away food that had spoiled in their refrigerator and freezer over the last three weeks. Along with cousin Noel Banks, they had evacuated the city before the storm and had been shuffling between relatives in Texas and Louisiana. Marilyn Lombard says she was overwhelmed by the generosity of the people she encountered.
MARILYN LOMBARD: And I was getting gas and this lady saw the license plate and she said you are from New Orleans — I was talking to her — and she opened her home to us and said you can come and stay with us.
TOM BEARDEN: She declined the offer but the woman insisted paying for her gas. Leslie Lombard says it is good to be home but wonders about the safety of people returning to areas that did flood.
LESLIE LOMBARD: I wouldn’t be in a rush to come back if I lived in that area. I would really want to make sure everything’s secure, everything is safe, clean, before I decide to come back.
SPOKESMAN: Do you have the stamp on your thing ma’am?
PERSON IN CAR: Yes, yes sir.
SPOKESMAN: Okay you have the stamp. Go ahead, you’re good.
TOM BEARDEN: Other parts of the metropolitan area began reopening over the weekend. People have been lining up at checkpoints like this one to enter small neighborhoods in St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans.
SPOKESPERSON: Thank you.
WOMAN: Thank you.
SPOKESPERSON: How are doing?
SPOKESPERSON: Okay. You are okay right there.
SPOKESPERSON: Yes, ma’am. Be careful.
KWAME HOLMAN: But some areas remain closed including Merot, a residential area that was inundated with crude oil when a large refinery tank split.
SPOKESMAN: It’s not going to be open until Wednesday or Thursday in this area. Okay. We got the oil spill and everything and they are still trying to clean that up. That’s why — Okay?
TOM BEARDEN: Lieutenant Jefferson Lee was commanding the checkpoint. His home was in Merot.
LT. JEFFERSON LEE, St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Dept.: My house was totally destroyed. Everything that I have is gone. Everything that I’ve worked for in my law enforcement career is gone — everything.
TOM BEARDEN: Lee said it was five days before any outside help arrived in the parish. And that help came from law enforcement agencies who simply showed up and volunteered.
LT. JEFFERSON LEE: I’ve been through a lot of things in my law enforcement career, but nothing I was ever taught in the police academy or the FBI national academy that teaches you for something like this or that. It’s beyond comprehension.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Reichert family made it through the roadblocks to their home in the town of Araby. What they found was heartbreaking.
JAKE REICHERT: The crystal is all broken; the cabinets fell down. Got to save what we can, you know. Ain’t much. Ain’t much to it, man.
I think I have got like 14 foot here. It went through — that’s the worst part — it went through the ceiling and come down. That’s why it is so devastating you know? We are just trying to save whatever we can just for memories.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jake and Cheryl Reichert and their son Jacob have been staying with their daughter in Baton Rouge.
CHERYL REICHERT: We’ll pick up the pieces. I don’t know if we are coming back. That’s still to be decided. I know a lot of people are saying we are, we are not. It’s new. We’ll have to take one day at a time and see. And that’s the biggest loss with St. Bernard Parish. We have friends who are like family. We are going to lose touch, I think, with a lot of people that you grew up with since toddlers, and as adults, and you’re just going to be misplaced.
JAKE REICHERT: It’s going to be a couple years before anybody gets back around here. I’m sure they’re thinking of tearing all these houses down. I’m pretty sure of that.
CHERYL REICHERT: But we have each other, and that’s one thing to be thankful is for our family, you know. We are all together. And I have to thank God that He spared all our lives. It’s a blessing. Material things we can replace; lives we can’t.
TOM BEARDEN: The Reicherts at least have flood insurance. Many others like Kevin Tubbs don’t and now he’s not sure he still has a job planning conventions at a New Orleans hotel.
KEVIN TUBBS: My wife’s pictures that she put in there for preservation, we thought it would come down from the ceiling on the windows, not up from the ground. So pretty much all those got ruined.
TOM BEARDEN: Leaving his wife and children in Houston, he made the six-hour drive alone to reclaim a few things from their 105-year-old house on the other side of Araby.
KEVIN TUBBS: We had to decide one way or the other — on whether we were going to, you know, stay away for a year or two, or try to come back in.
TOM BEARDEN: A lot of people trying to make that decision.
KEVIN TUBBS: It’s a hard decision to make.
TOM BEARDEN: The house was only slightly damaged by wind but the water had been waist-high inside, destroying 15 years of renovation work. The neighborhood had never flooded before.
TOM BEARDEN: Is it salvageable?
KEVIN TUBB: I think the house itself is, yeah. Cut the sheetrock out and insulation and let it dry out. And it’s really the funding that’s going to prohibit us from, you know, really getting back in there.
TOM BEARDEN: Because there’s no insurance?
KEVIN TUBBS: No insurance, no flood insurance.
TOM BEARDEN: It will be sometime before other neighborhoods like this one in East New Orleans are reopened. Many of the homes are probably not salvageable. For blocks, it’s a muddy desert devoid of life. The only sound: the forlorn beeping of a slowly failing alarm inside the ruins of someone’s home.