Some Still Reluctant to Leave New Orleans

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin calls for a mandatory evacuation and authorizes law enforcement officials to force all those left in the flooded city to leave. Nagin cites danger from at least four fires and from highly polluted floodwater.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has issued a mandatory evacuation order for everyone in his flood-stricken city.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): There are toxins in the water. There are gas leaks where we may have explosions. We're fighting at least four fires right now, and we don't have running water. It is not safe.

MONTAGNE: City officials want everybody gone while they pump out floodwater and restore services. About 10,000 people are believed still holed up in their houses, and as NPR's John Burnett reports, many refuse to leave.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

The standing water looks and smells like a sewer. There's no running water, electricity or Internet. The stores, pharmacies and even the bars are closed, so why would anybody want to stay in this ghost town? That was the question put to Jerry Loner, a retired nurse, sitting on his front porch in the Marion neighborhood which did not flood, flying an American flag, smoking a cigarette and sipping red wine earlier this week. He appeared to be in no hurry to evacuate.

Mr. JERRY LONER (Resident): It's kind of hard to pick up and leave everything. Your whole life is here, that's the problem. I have no place to go to. I have no family, really. I'm retired. I live on Social Security. I don't know where I would go, what I would do, so, so far, this is the best for me currently.

BURNETT: The situation in New Orleans has improved or worsened depending on your perspective. The water level is dropping, looting is on the decline and National Guardsmen seem to be everywhere patrolling the city, but the water is getting more toxic, gas leaks spew unchecked and the city's treasury of graceful old wooden homes are sitting tinder boxes. This is a major concern when there are arsonists about and no water pressure in the fire hydrants.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BURNETT: Yesterday, firefighters had to pump water from a tanker truck to put out a two-story house fire. They were helped by a helicopter dumping water from above and a historic neighborhood was saved. As a way to get people to leave, rescue crews and Guardsmen have begun telling holdouts they will not receive any more water or meals ready-to-eat. That tactic convinced Myra Watts(ph) and her boyfriend Kevin Foots(ph). They've been staying for the past week in her partially flooded house in the Gentilly neighborhood. They finally allowed themselves to be picked up by a flat boat after deciding storm survival gets old after a week.

Ms. MYRA WATTS (Resident): Ahh, let me put it to you like this, I could be a dominoes champion. A lot of dominoes and a lot of ...(unintelligible).

BURNETT: Some holdouts feel an obligation to stay behind. Maria Alana Sal Devar(ph) from El Salvador keeps house at a St. Charles Avenue mansion. Sal Devar volunteered to watch the owner's three dogs when her employer fled to Atlanta before the storm.

Ms. MARIA ALANA SAL DEVAR (Resident): (Through Translator) I couldn't leave because I was taking care of the dogs. We thought after the hurricane, everything would be normal after three days, but it wasn't that way. Nothing this terrible has happened before.

BURNETT: She hopes to evacuate to Atlanta also as soon as she can get the ASPCA to come pick up the dogs. Maria Alana Sal Devar is one of the neighbors that Lance Hill has been checking up on every day since the storm.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Ms. EILEEN HILL: Anybody home? It's your neighbor, Lance. We've got food or water if you need it.

BURNETT: Hill and his wife Eileen live in a yellow stucco house on Hurst Street that's high and dry. He's director of a civil rights institute at Tulane University. She's a special ed teacher. For the past week, they've hauled water from a swimming pool across the street for flushing and bathing. They eat a lot of Dinty Moore canned stew. Hill says it gets lonely, but he also enjoys the peace and quiet.

Mr. LANCE HILL: Last night I was up until about 2 patrolling around here and the only blessing of Katrina is that you can see the stars over New Orleans at night.

BURNETT: Finally, there's a group in New Orleans that will remain behind even if the last person evacuates; they're the occupants of the world-famous Audubon Zoo. Twelve staffers have remained at the zoo day and night since the storm, struggling to keep the animals alive. So far they've only lost two river otters and a few water fowl, an alligator wandered off, but they think they'll find him eventually. Two black furred Siamangs, members of the Gibbon family, go animated when zoo curator, Dan Maloney, leads a small group of visitors into the world of primates area.

(Soundbite of animals)

Mr. DAN MALONEY (Curator, Audubon Zoo): They haven't seen any reasonable numbers of people in a week and a half.

BURNETT: The military's arrival in New Orleans has been a mixed blessing for the zoo. Yesterday, the Navy promised to deliver a reverse osmosis plant to filter river water to replenish the sea lion tank. `On the other hand,' Maloney says, `the helicopters frighten his animals.'

(Soundbite of helicopters)

Mr. MALONEY: As encouraged as we are to see the military presence--and they've done a great job for us--they're flying way too low right now.

BURNETT: In the end, it's up to the residents themselves how long they want to hold out in this deserted city. Despite the mayor's total evacuation order, a police spokesman assured last night that nobody would be forcibly removed and placed on a bus. John Burnett, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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