Heartbreaking Homecoming

A group of Hurricane Katrina survivors returns to New Orleans and finds that facing grim reality is more difficult than expected


NEW ORLEANS — From the start, Allen "Sarge" Smith and his group of eight Hurricane Katrina survivors seemed to succeed best when they operated against the grain.

They ignored evacuation orders and designed their own peaceful shelter amid a city raging with chaos. And after being evacuated to West Virginia, a thousand miles from home, the group had reason to celebrate: the wedding of two members of the tenacious crew.

So Sarge figured that returning to whatever was left of their Uptown New Orleans homes would be the final triumph amid adversity.

"We're excited; we're ready to get out of here and go back home," Sarge said as he prepared to return. "We have to survey the damages and get to work. But then, New Orleans is going to be better than ever."

Last weekend, Sarge, 55; Vance Anthion, 57; and Gerald Washington, 50, set out for home. They knew devastation awaited them, but they felt confident in their plan. They would begin the arduous cleanup of their flooded homes and, they pledged, help resurrect the city that Katrina ravaged. New Orleans needed them as much as they needed it, they reasoned.

But optimism quickly faded into grim reality. Nothing would be as they hoped.

While the French Quarter had been open for business for more than a week, their section of New Orleans was still deserted when they returned Sunday.

Before the storm, children had played in the streets, elderly neighbors looked out for one another, and shop owners knew everyone's name. But along Freret Street, the cleaners, the gas station and the natural food grocery remained boarded up. Abandoned cars and trash - a beige high-heel shoe, a child's tricycle, broken lawn chairs coated with dirt - littered the street.

Every now and then, the silence gave way to the buzz of a chainsaw. This part of Uptown may be poor, they said, but it had always been vibrant.

"We're lost in the wilderness - that's what it feels like here," Anthion said.

They began to wonder whether people would ever come back.

"I can't even call my friends to tell them what things look like here," Washington said. "I don't have anything good to say."

It was the first frustration in a week of disappointments as well as fresh hopes for the trio.

Sarge, a former military policeman turned artist, and Anthion, a weathered Vietnam veteran, were part of a group of eight neighbors who survived Katrina's flooding by converting a local middle school into a shelter. After a week, they were evacuated to Camp Dawson, a National Guard training center nestled in the Appalachian town of Kingwood, W.Va. They met Washington there, discovered he was from the same part of town, and drew him into their fold.

During the weeks in West Virginia, they helped one another struggle to adjust amid their uncertainties about the future. They even organized a New Orleans-style wedding feast for Greg Avery and Glenda Perkins, the neighbors who decided to marry.

But when the state agency that ran the evacuee program ended their stay Oct. 1, the tight-knit group split up. Eight-year-old Sierra Smith, her grandparents and her 19-year-old uncle moved to a home in Kingwood, all immediate expenses paid. The newlyweds accepted an invitation to live temporarily with a Morgantown, W.Va., couple who helped plan their wedding.

While those six felt it best to sink roots outside of Louisiana for now, the other three vowed to return to New Orleans as soon as the city would let them.

Prepared to move into rooms and jobs Sarge told the others he'd arranged, the three departed last Saturday on the first of two flights that returned them to New Orleans on Sunday.

A manager at a downtown New Orleans hotel where Sarge sometimes washed windows had offered them rooms at the hotel and temporary jobs cleaning debris downtown, Sarge said. But when their cab delivered them to the hotel Sunday morning, the manager wasn't around. Even worse, they were told that the hotel was filled with federal emergency workers, and there were no vacancies.

Regrouping, they told the cabbie to take them to Sarge's house, where they figured they would stay the night. What lay ahead was nothing short of anguish.

Sarge's wife, Veronica Ogden, and their 15-year-old daughter had left ahead of the storm to stay with relatives in New York City, while Sarge stayed behind to protect the property from looters.

His urge to rush back to New Orleans was "foolish," in Ogden's opinion. She wasn't ready to return. She thought it would be too dangerous. How would they live without power and drinkable water? But worse, she knew she couldn't stomach seeing the ruins of her home, which had been in her family for decades.

"One minute, I just miss home so much, but then I'm so upset because I have no idea what I'd be going back to," she said. But Sarge was determined to go.

"Once he gets his mind set on something, there's nothing I can do," she said.

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