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South of New Orleans, a new flood

By JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2005

LAFITTE, La. - Torie Ali sat barefoot on her front porch Saturday afternoon shaking her head at the rising water that was about to consume the family bungalow that survived every hurricane over the past century.

Hurricane Katrina took a few shingles.

Hurricane Rita was about to take the rest.

The storm was long gone when wind and tidal surge filled hundreds of homes in low-lying areas in southern Jefferson Parish on an otherwise sunny and dry afternoon.

Ali's front lawn had dissolved into a lake that separated her and Sheena, her black Labrador, from her truck and husband, Raza Ali, who stood thigh deep on Sharpe Road preparing their escape. A 13-foot alligator poked its nose up in the flooded back yard.

Swimming was her only escape.

"I can't tell you how this is breaking my heart," said Ali, whose grandparents moved into the bungalow in 1946 to work in the oil and gas industry.

While residents throughout most of the New Orleans metropolitan area exhaled a sigh of relief Saturday after Hurricane Rita rolled north, floodwaters rushed into several low-lying neighborhoods about 20 miles south of New Orleans.

Rita did so little damage to New Orleans that Mayor Ray Nagin said business owners may return to the dry neighborhood of Algiers and the central business district as soon as Monday, He predicted residents could return home to some areas as soon as the end of the week.

"What I hope to do is to very systematically start to repopulate the city," Nagin said. "We're just delayed three to five days as far as what we thought we could do."

The mayor and city department chiefs said Hurricane Rita had done little new damage to the city's infrastructure. Uptown, some power was lost at homes where it had been restored, and 1,300 customers lost power in Algiers.

Workers began dumping giant sand bags Saturday to repair a breach in the Industrial Canal that flooded the Lower 9th Ward, which had just begun to dry out from Hurricane Katrina.

Not a drop of rain fell after 9 a.m. Saturday in the New Orleans area, but leftover tidal surge and winds pushed the Gulf of Mexico into the bayous surrounding neighborhoods of Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria.

No deaths were reported, but at least three homes burned in Laffite after the water shorted electrical wires, rescue officials reported. The only way into Lafitte was closed to all but emergency vehicles.

At least 100 residents were evacuated by boat and military trucks and dropped off on the dry northern side of the Barataria Boulevard bridge, the only way in and out of Lafitte. From there, buses drove residents to an evacuation center.

Generations of fishermen with soft Cajun accents have long lived in the bungalows and mobile homes of these flood-prone neighborhoods that have lately sprouted large brick homes built by New Orleans suburbanites on builtup ground.

No levees protect the neighborhoods and officials ordered a mandatory evacuation two days before the hurricane approached. But after Hurricane Katrina spared the area, many residents ignored the evacuation orders and stayed.

Hundreds woke up Saturday morning to water rising inside their homes. By noon, some areas were under 6 feet of water. Floodwaters also rose about 4 feet and deepened several inches each hour in Crown Point and Barataria.

Officials predicted the water would rise all weekend before receding.

"Boats are my life, water is my life, and we never had flooding inside our home, not in 25 years," said Frank "Old Man" Wyman, a 78-year-old marine engineer who evacuated to the Crown Point fire house after his Lafitte home started filling with water Saturday morning. "Not even (Hurricane) Betsy came through."

Elsewhere in New Orleans, the Industrial Canal continued to pour Lake Pontchartrain into a largely empty Lower 9th Ward and across the parish line into Chalmette and Arabi. Floodwater almost met the waterline Hurricane Katrina left on abandoned bungalows and shotgun houses that had barely dried out earlier in the week.

Parts of empty New Orleans neighborhoods including Lakeview and Gentily also had taken on 1 to 2 feet of water, mostly from rain and the London Avenue and 17th Street canals. Both had been plugged where the canals meet the lake to prevent storm surge from inundating the city.

The biggest search and rescue efforts focused on the low-lying Jefferson Parish neighborhoods.

Even as the waters rose to windows of mobile homes, dozens of residents refused to evacuate. Crown Point volunteer firefighter Mike Ancar yelled at many residents, urging them to hop aboard the National Guard truck. But many just shook their heads.

"A lot of people just don't want to leave their houses like this," he said with a sigh.

When the empty truck got back to the fire station, Ancar's wife, Jennifer, quizzed him about who he had seen.

"What about Ms. Edna?" she asked.

"We didn't see her."

"I'm trying to wrap my brain on where else you have to go," said his wife, running her hands on either side of her face.

"There are too many people who don't want to go, and we can't make them," he said.

"They'll have to leave when they don't have a choice," she said.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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