As New Orleans Empties, a Stubborn Few Remain
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Some encouraging news now. Search and rescue teams in New Orleans say they expect to find fewer numbers of dead in that city than originally expected, less than the 10,000 some city officials had projected. Also, two-thirds of the city's flood pumps are reportedly working and water's dropped significantly in the Ninth Ward and other eastern areas. But NPR's Martin Kaste reports on the devastation coming to light as the waters recede.
(Soundbite of water being pumped)
MARTIN KASTE reporting:
Nearly two weeks after Katrina, it's now possible to drive into much of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, as long as you're in a vehicle with three feet of clearance. Tanks, Navy amphibious trucks and armored personnel carriers also work. The heavy armor is being used to patrol these deserted neighborhoods. Nearly everyone is gone by now, or dead. Rescuers are focusing their energies on a tiny group of holdouts, such as Rita Gillette. The water has just drained from her house, and she sits impassively on her scum-encrusted lawn as rescuers try to persuade her to leave.
Ms. RITA GILLETTE: They've been doing that over a week now.
KASTE: Are you afraid of losing your home? Is that why?
Ms. GILLETTE: No.
KASTE: Why are you staying?
Ms. GILLETTE: We will try to take out all the mess and everything and clean the house so that whenever we find my kids then and they would have somewhere they could stay.
KASTE: It almost seems delusional to hope that any of these houses could ever be clean again. The water is an oily brew with a gag-inducing smell of rotten eggs, and as it recedes, it leaves everything coated with a gray film. Where the streets have dried out, packs of dogs roam, and human remains have appeared. Some of the out-of-town firemen have taken to saving some of the healthier-looking pets stranded on front porches, but they hold off looking inside the houses for the masters. The systematic effort to locate and collect human remains has barely begun, and no one knows what's waiting inside most of these houses. Riding through town in the back of a truck, New Orleans Police Officer Michael Cochran doesn't blink at the sight of a bloated corpse washed up against a chain-link fence.
Officer MICHAEL COCHRAN (New Orleans Police): I swear, I've passed by more dead bodies and not even noticed them.
KASTE: The dead most certainly outnumber the living residents now in these neighborhoods, and first responders are beginning to lose patience with the stubbornness of some of the survivors. Paul Goodman, a firefighter from Georgetown, Kentucky, says this swath of working-class New Orleans simply won't be habitable anytime soon.
Mr. PAUL GOODMAN (Kentucky Firefighter): I mean, it's--you know, the disease that's in the water, that's gonna be in the area, even in the area where the water's gone down, it's just--it's not gonna be safe, you know, and...
Mr. GOODMAN: ...you're still feeding these people, you know. I mean, you know, if they cut them off, you know, with the food, you know, then they'll be forced to go to shelters and it's gonna make this whole operation go a lot quicker.
KASTE: But so far, city officials say they have not called for the stragglers to be pulled out by force, and rescuers are reluctant to force the issue. They're also reluctant to advertise the fact that they work for the much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency. Goodman and his unit of firefighters are here working for the agency, but they've hidden their FEMA ID tags under their shirts.
Mr. GOODMAN: They still wanted us to wear it. We were advised by the US marshals not to wear it, so we just--you know, we checked with them first. We told them, you know, the deal, what we were nervous about, and they said that's fine.
KASTE: The FEMA logo is a rare sight these days in the streets of New Orleans. A much more common sight in these areas where the water is backing off are the New Orleans Police, their uniforms often reduced to a T-shirt and a badge. Many of them live here, and they've hitched rides on the National Guard trucks to check on their homes.
(Soundbite of banging noise)
Unidentified Woman: You guys gonna need some ...(unintelligible) street?
KASTE: Kevin Imbraguglio, a narcotics officer in normal times, is opening his front door for the first time since Katrina.
Officer KEVIN IMBRAGUGLIO (New Orleans Police): Oh.
KASTE: Imbraguglio is greeted by a powerful stench in a house coated in mud.
Officer IMBRAGUGLIO: Water damage everywhere. I mean, it's gonna be gutted, completely gutted. There's mold coming up the wall already. So I'd say I lost everything.
KASTE: All Imbraguglio can find to salvage is a box of CDs. He says he'll consider living here again, but only if the city's levee system is rebuilt better than it was before. Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.