Residents slog back into New Orleans

For many people, rebuilding life starts with throwing out the stinky refrigerator

Hurricane Rita

September 27, 2005|By Bill Glauber and Lolly Bowean | Bill Glauber and Lolly Bowean,Chicago Tribune

NEW ORLEANS -- Residents and business owners of this storm-ravaged city are trickling into reopened neighborhoods to resume the huge challenge of restarting lives and rebuilding.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration was assessing the impact of Hurricane Rita, which roared through the Gulf Coast region Saturday and cut a swath through an area that accounts for about 29 percent of the country's domestic output of crude oil production. There were reports, though, that refineries in the hurricane zone came through the storm without significant damage.

Rita struck on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, large areas of Louisiana and Mississippi and parts of Alabama.

President Bush also said he was still considering the appointment of a "reconstruction czar" for the storm-battered Gulf Coast, with reconstruction costs expected to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

"Now there's going to be a lot of federal involvement because we're going to spend money - wisely, I might add," Bush said.

The slow, fitful recovery could be seen in New Orleans, four weeks after Katrina struck, as parts of the city were reopened to residents and New Orleans officials pressed to quickly repopulate.

Among those to return to the Algiers neighborhood yesterday were Mark and Gena Stephens and their daughters, Sara, 18, and Lindsey, 14. Their home was damaged by the storm.

"We lost our roof," Gena Stephens, 35, said. "The roof caved in."

"It's a mold hotel," said Mark Stephens, 48.

After spending about a month living in a church in Baton Rouge, family members said they will return for good to Algiers, living with Gena Stephens' parents.

"We're in an area that is secure," Mark Stephens said. "Now, if we only had a job to go back to."

Gena and Mark Stephens work for a company that sells books to schools, and most schools in this area are shut.

At Greater St. Mary Baptist Church in Algiers, the Rev. James Brown and a staff of volunteers continued to provide meals to about 1,000 people a day.

Brown said the neighborhood's recovery will be slow but that he remains confident New Orleans can rebuild.

"We need the businesses back. That will build the momentum," said Brown, whose church hall was filled with stacks of food and toiletry items. Donations have poured in from across the nation and around the world.

Few children were present in Algiers. One of them was 7-year-old Addison Lotz, who ate his meal of beans and a burger at the church hall while his mother, Chere Lotz, 30, and grandmother, Jo Ann Lotz, 69, sat nearby.

The family is living in an undamaged Algiers home, but the family refrigerator had to be trashed after the power went off and food rotted.

"I'm amazed at how much they have cleaned up Algiers," Jo Ann Lotz said. "They are not finished, but it's in good shape."

Chere Lotz sais she hopes other families will return.

"We need people to come back, and then everyone will feel safer," she said. "We need people in a neighborhood."

All along the west bank of the Mississippi, even outside New Orleans, the small towns were brought back to life as some restaurants, drugstores, gas stations, hair salons and car dealerships reopened. Residents began clearing out the tree limbs and debris and restoring order in their homes.

Kirk and Katie Boudreaux had been away from their Terrytown home for so long that it seemed a little foreign to them. On their first day back, their three children asked whether they could all sleep in one room until they could get used to the place again.

"It's so quiet, it does seem a little spooky," Katie Boudreaux said. "Hopefully, if our neighbors come back and more people get back, it will start to seem normal."

Although the stores were open and the west bank wasn't the ghost town it had been, the effects of the storm were visible. At the grocery stores, customers had to stand in line to get in. At the fast-food restaurants, the last order had to be made well before the nightly curfew.

When Long Pham returned to his Gretna home and opened the front door, he was hit with the stench of weeks-old, rotten seafood from his refrigerator that filled the lower level of his house.

Pham didn't bother trying to clean up the mess. He carted the refrigerator to the front of his house along with all the other trash and debris.

"It won't work anymore," he said. "Let the insurance company deal with it."

As dozens of residents piled back into the west bank of New Orleans, many were thankful that they didn't have the flooding most of the city endured.

But throughout most of the residential neighborhoods, people sealed their refrigerators with duct tape and carted them to the front lawn for the parish to dispose of.

"It smelled like bad fish and shrimp," Pham said. "It stinks."

At A-Cool Appliances in Marerro, the store was averaging about 10 refrigerator sales a day, owner Theresa Celino said. Before Hurricane Katrina, the small, independent store sold about three a week, she said.

"People are not wanting to face the smells or the rotten meat," Celino said. "We're talking maggots and everything else. I'm not trying to be gross, but it is. People don't want to eat food where all that bacteria and filth has been."

Bill Glauber and Lolly Bowean write for the Chicago Tribune.

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