Damage to New Orleans from latest storm relatively light

Hurricane Rita

September 25, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,Sun Reporter

NEW ORLEANS // The billboard on top of his apartment was in a heap by the front step, the leaky ceiling was ruining what was left of his belongings, and Robert McCalvin felt the same way that everyone else did about the hurricane that was responsible.

"We got lucky," McCalvin said, sitting among the wreckage outside the Splish Splash Laundromat on Bienville Avenue, where he lives upstairs and hopes to work again if the people ever come back. "That one felt like a vacation."

Perhaps only in New Orleans could so much flooding and storm damage seem like a blessing.

The city's Lower Ninth Ward was flooded yesterday, but it had been cleared of people weeks before and was considered largely unsalvageable anyway. The streets of the French Quarter were littered with shattered glass and debris from broken signs and roofs, but police officers patrolling the district were grateful that the debris was brought down when the city was empty, not after the return of the population in the coming weeks or months.

Patches to the levee along the London Avenue Canal in the Gentilly neighborhood were leaking water into the surrounding neighborhood, but engineers said the leaks also exposed the patch's weaknesses and should make it easier to repair.

"As soon as the water starts to subside, we're going to feel a lot better," Mayor Ray Nagin said at an afternoon news conference. But with the damage relatively sparse, Nagin said, he hopes to allow business owners and residents of New Orleans' southern Algiers section back into the city as early as tomorrow.

"We're going to do that - stop, then assess," the Mayor said. "We're ready to move forward."

While Hurricane Rita did not wreak the kind of catastrophic damage that city officials knew was possible because of the compromised state of New Orleans' protective levees, the huge storm still made an impact on southeastern Louisiana.

In the communities of Lafitte and Barataria south of New Orleans, floodwater rose more than 6 feet and forced rescue teams to snatch hundreds of people from swamped houses. A large section of Interstate 10 on New Orleans' west side was under as much as 20 feet of water, which engineers were unable to pump out because of temporary dams erected on the canals.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that the most heavily flooded neighborhoods won't be dry for as long as three weeks and that much of the pumping can't even begin until the levees are repaired again.

But events that might have disrupted life in any other city were scarcely noticeable in a place that is virtually devoid of life anyway.

The closure of I-10, the city's main interstate route, affected mostly fire and rescue vehicles because New Orleans is off-limits to residents and the highway east of the city is impassable because of damage from Hurricane Katrina. The fresh coating of trash and branches throughout the city hardly mattered to the few vehicles out on the roads, virtually all of which were military trucks or firetrucks.

The few residents surviving in the city were still talking about the flooding from Katrina four weeks earlier and say they hardly noticed the modest tempest that Hurricane Rita delivered.

"Everything I've got is ruined, and that didn't change when I woke up this morning," said McCalvin, 52, sole employee of the Splish Splash. "Right now it's just a matter of whether to tear everything down and rebuild or try to fix things. It's the same everywhere you look."

robert.little@baltsun.com

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