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Hurricane Katrina

Some allowed back as all warned away

Even as thousands from a nearby parish are allowed a brief return, a New Orleans police official declares the city "destroyed."

Published September 6, 2005

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Multimedia: Continuing fallout
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NEW ORLEANS - While authorities withheld bottled water, trying to force New Orleans stragglers to leave the beleaguered city, residents of suburban Jefferson Parish got a two-day reprieve to return home, retrieve sodden possessions and rescue their pets.

Aerial reconnaissance indicated that about 10,000 people remained in the city. Some are trapped in houses by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters. Others simply refuse to leave despite an increasing military presence.

"We advise people that this city has been destroyed," said Warren Riley, deputy police chief. "There is absolutely no reason for them to stay. No jobs, no food ..."

In the western suburb of Jefferson Parish, however, thousands of residents lined up for miles to return to their homes and sift through the debris.

The abbreviated pilgrimage began before dawn, with cars lined at entry checkpoints. Residents with valid I.D. were allowed to check their property and retrieve everything from dogs to documents to computers and family photos.

They only get two days.

On Wednesday authorities will close Jefferson Parish back up and force residents to rejoin the exodus of Hurricane Katrina evacuees that is spreading across the nation.

Although the city's biggest levee breach, at the 17th Street Canal, was finally repaired Monday, whole neighborhoods remained flooded up to rooftops.

Some Jefferson Parish residents, population 452,000, rode boats to their homes, or waded though fetid, chest-deep water. Others were able to drive or walk in.

June Clesi, 63, broke down when she thought about how little she could cart away from her house in suburban Metairie. A foot of water had soured most of her furniture and carpeting. Leading her list were the framed antique photos of her grandparents who emigrated from Italy.

"I can't replace those two," she said, staring at the wall, her hands covered with pink gloves, her eyes welling when she heard herself talk.

The two-day return to Jefferson was approved by Parish President Aaron Broussard. He said he wanted residents to see the devastation firsthand so they could decide whether to get on with their lives somewhere else.

"I am the only elected official who is in favor of doing this," he said, "but people need to understand they're not coming back to Wally Cleaver's neighborhood."

Meanwhile, President Bush toured the Gulf Coast for the second time in three days, promising a "huge effort" to bail out Katrina's victims. Skipping New Orleans, he started his day in Baton Rouge, which has doubled in population since the storm.

At the Bethany World Prayer Center, a huge shelter, Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco maintained a cool distance as they worked the hall, praising rescue workers and reassuring evacuees.

Blanco, a Democrat, has criticized the pace of federal relief since Katrina inundated New Orleans a week ago. She has refused to sign over National Guard control to the federal government and has appointed a former Clinton administration official to help run relief efforts.

"All levels of the government are doing the best they can," Bush said. "So long as any life is in danger, we've got work to do."

Several people ran up to meet Bush as he and first lady Laura Bush wandered around the room. Just as many hung back.

"I'm not star-struck. I need answers," said Mildred Brown, who has been there a week.

Later Monday, Bush met with Mississippi's Republican Gov. Haley Barbour in Poplarville, about 45 miles inland from where Katrina hit the coast. Bush acknowledged that his optimism about recovery might be hard for others to share: "It's easy for me to say that I can see a better tomorrow because I haven't been living through what you are living." he said. "But I do."

In the short run, Mississippi still needs drinking water, said Joe Spraggins, Harrison County's emergency chief. Private truckers have been reluctant to bring in water, he said, because they fear they won't have enough diesel fuel to get home.

On the positive side, long convoys of military trucks poured into the Gulfport-Biloxi area Monday. By today, more than 45,000 National Guard, Army and Air Force personnel should be providing security throughout stricken areas in three states, authorities said. That includes reserves and troops on active duty.

New Orleans needs reinforcements. About 400 to 500 police officers - more than one quarter of the force - have resigned or are unaccounted for. Police Chief Eddie Compass called them cowards, while praising officers who remain.

"The human sacrifice in this department is unprecedented in the annals of this country," Compass said. "There's a saying, that which does not kill you makes you stronger. This has made us stronger."

Mayor Ray Nagin said the city will start rotating out beleaguered emergency workers. Police officers, firefighters and their families will get five or more days in cities with large numbers of hotel rooms - Atlanta and Las Vegas in particular. In addition to rest and relaxation, Nagin said, they will have time to assess their personal situation.

Speaking on NBC's Today show, Nagin appeared more upbeat than in previous days.

Sheets of metal and repeated helicopter drops of 3,000-pound sandbags along the 17th Street canal leading to Lake Pontchartrain succeeded Monday in plugging a 200-foot-wide gap, and water was being pumped from the canal back into the lake. Looting has all but ended as thousands of guardsmen and soldiers took up positions throughout the city, authorities said. In some areas, electricity was being restored and commerce was edging back to life.

"We're making great progress now, the momentum has picked up. I'm starting to see some critical tasks being completed," Nagin said.

Though the official New Orleans death count stands at 71, Nagin speculated that up to 10,000 bodies may be found by the time the city dries out. He gave no basis for that estimate.

Over the weekend, Nagin criticized the people of Jefferson Parish for closing the door to exhausted evacuees who trudged over the Crescent City Connection to escape the ruined city and reach high ground.

In Metairie, a city in the Jefferson Parish, Carl Giffin, Sr., 69, looked on as his son, brother and grandson pulled up sopping beige carpeting in their living room. Mold crept up the walls of the Ridgeway Drive home he had owned for 41 years. Before daylight ended, four cars would carry away loads of possessions, heirloom silver, china and crystal. But if there was one thing that needed to be saved, he said, it was the mahogany chest his father-in-law hand-crafted as a wedding gift.

"We're just going to have to start over again," Giffin said. "But we're at an age where it's hard to do that."

Jamie Dallimore was under strict orders from her 2-year-old to retrieve Elmo and a Doodle Pro drawing toy. But water filled the kids' toy room; Elmo's feet were soaked, and water trickled out of the drawing game.

"It's going to be harder for them, I think," Dallimore said of her daughter and 2-month-old son. She picked up her father's laminated obituary - the one with a smiling picture that she says hello to every morning.

And on a shelf in the kids' rooms she discovered a substitute for Elmo. It was a purple elephant and it would have to do.

--Times reporter Alex Leary, the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Times-Picayune and Knight-Ridder newspapers contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 6, 2005, 06:23:57]

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