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When the searchers go marching in

NEW ORLEANS -- The parades in this jazz city press on, down empty avenues.

Published September 11, 2005

Robert Birney glides along Chartres Street flanked by Mike Carsello, Andy Chambers and 10 other police officers from Tredyffrin, a place in eastern Pennsylvania famous for housing American generals during the Revolutionary War.

They stop at every doorway, doorknob and fencepost searching for life, or death.

The thud of the sledgehammer reaches the red door of 6134 Chartres, a green shotgun house with a white awning and character -- a real nice place in the lower 9th Ward, a neighborhood especially devastated by flood waters. 18 feet high in some places.

"Good, solid wood," said Carsello, 38, who has made a profession these days of busting into houses. what residents had fought to protect. He swings the sledgehammer again. The thud reverberates through the empty streets, three glass panels at the top shatter, sprinkling on Carsello's sweaty arms.

Be careful, say the men who have fallen in behind, pointing hand guns toward the entryway.

Carsello swings again and again with a steady beat. After the 12th and 13th try, he pauses. Seven thuds later, Carsello passes to Birney, a 28-year-old, three years on the job -- eight swings from opening a house he's never seen before.

Inside, the white sofa is turned over onto a floor full of feces. A white "I love you" teddy bear is perched on the love seat and a silver big screen television looks unharmed, and dominates the room.

A picture of a mother and a daughter smiling hangs over the mantle. They're not here. No one is.

Birney, Carsello and Chambers turn their attention to the next house.

The march moves on. A convoy of helicopters whirls overheard.

"We came in preparing for the worst," said Chambers, a no-nonsense captain with a crew cut. "We were right."

He added, "My heart breaks for these people."

The officers from Tredyffrin searched hundreds of house along New Orleans' east side with a hot sun over head. The ritual was the same -- calming in a city deliberate with madness.

The sweep was uneventful. A good thing, all agreed. No one was dead, or alive.

The lower 9th Ward, a poor and almost entirely black neighborhood, flooded in the morning hours as Katrina came ashore 13 days ago.

Most residents were rescued days ago the when caravans of boats that funneled down the area's soaked streets. The waters have receded now, but no residents have been allowed to return yet.

Officers move to the next house on Chartres. It takes 19 swings from the sledgehammer to knock in the peach front door. Another officer walks to the side, where two roosters scurry in backyard with an old Dodge. The side door was open.

The house was empty.

There's a lot more to go, said Chambers, hopping into his SUV, headed for another block.

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