New Orleans to open, ready or not

Recovery: The mayor wants people to move back in, but New Orleans residents say the city isn't up to it.

September 17, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Mike Bordelone hadn't planned to return to his Mid-City restaurant just yet - he wasn't ready to deal with the swollen furniture or the brown slime - but his plans changed abruptly when he heard the news: People are coming back to New Orleans.

So he hung a gun on his hip and slogged into Liuzza's Restaurant and Bar to crack open the ATM and get his money out, before someone else did. With each blow of the hammer and pry of the crowbar, desperation grew closer to a state of panic.

"I gotta get in here, to get this money before this place goes crazy again," Bordelone said, mud splattered across his white facemask.

"It's insanity," said neighbor Guy Courtney. "Look around. New Orleans ain't ready for this."

New Orleans isn't ready. You hear it anywhere beyond the city's central business district, from the crews bulldozing trees in northern Gentilly to the National Guard troops patrolling the banks and hotels in western Carrollton.

The city barely feels safe and manageable with the borders closed, they say. It's not ready for people, much less their cars and their children and their basic human needs.

Despite the scrubbed-down backdrop that New Orleans' French Quarter and central business district create for television cameras and politicians, most of the city beyond those areas remains a gray and darkened wasteland of foul air and littered streets. Dead and broken traffic signals make every intersection a potentially fatal encounter with Army trucks and police cars - assuming that the intersection is even navigable through the debris.

Mayor Ray Nagin plans to allow residents to return to parts of the city beginning this weekend, until roughly 182,000 residents are allowed back into the city two weeks from now. Business owners will be allowed into the city's central business zone near the Mississippi River today.

"We will have life. We will have commerce. We will have people getting into their normal modes of operations and the normal rhythm of the city," Nagin said.

Swallowed

Yet much of the city is still swallowed by the destruction, exuding a sort of anti-rhythm that makes it hard to imagine life ever filing back in.

Stores and gas stations aren't only closed and powerless - many have been gutted by flooding or torn apart by looters, and their broken pieces are sprawled across the city's landscape. Municipal water in most of the city is undrinkable; edible food scarcely exists.

The transportation infrastructure is tenuous, not just because of the cluttered and unlighted roads but also the lack of fuel and repair shops. The city's trolley system was crippled by the storm and needs weeks to repair, and bus drivers say they have been told not to work because the government can't pay them.

The school system is also in tatters.

Teachers and administrators have been sent home without jobs, and many are planning to find work in surrounding jurisdictions rather than wait for New Orleans to straighten itself out.

In the northern Lakeview neighborhood yesterday, four women were cleaning out the house of a grade-school principal who had worked all summer to get her school ready, only to be fired by a government that suddenly has to treat education as a luxury.

"I don't know how people are going to function," said Lisa Sabatier, as she overlooked a foul-smelling refrigerator that the group had hauled out to the curb.

"There's nothing on the grocery shelves, no gas, no schools for the children, no jobs for a lot of people," she said. "[The mayor is] letting too many people come back here. It's like living in the Third World."

Hospitals overwhelmed

Nurses and doctors at New Orleans' three operating hospitals - it had 20 before the storm - say they are overwhelmed with emergency cases even though the city is essentially vacant.

"The reduced population is what keeps it manageable," said Tom Lowe, a nurse coordinating a government-sponsored triage operation at West Jefferson Medical Center, one of the open facilities. "I'm not sure what will happen when everyone comes back."

Without exception, people in the outer areas of New Orleans, while eager to get on with the city's reconstruction, were shocked to learn that the government has deemed the city safe enough for thousands of people to return.

"Don't you think it's just a public relations stunt? That they'll just let in some business people to boost morale?" asked Patricia Thompson before plowing off through floodwaters to rescue her sister-in-law's wedding album.

Steve Gowen put it more harshly as he prepared to drive deeper into the muck to record high-water marks as part of a FEMA-sponsored flood mapping project.

"I think maybe the mayor has a screw loose," he said. "This place is not ready."

Signs of cleanup

A huge cleanup and repair effort is certainly under way.

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